Tag Archives: Gabriel

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It might have been the most peaceful place she had ever seen.

Peace hung in the air like the warm scent of bark, like the silvery-green leaves which occasionally fluttered down and danced around the ancient pitted courtyard on tiny gusts, like the shafts of coppery sunlight that crossed the open space at an angle from the west. It was a familiar sensation, one she had experienced in Toby’s presence, especially when he was filled with his god’s power. Peace as a tangible quality, something not felt by any of the physical senses for which there were names, but clearly experienced and understood just as well.

This was the first time she had felt that peace just existing, though. When it happened at Omnu’s behest, that was an act of will. An exertion of power, an attempt to deny the brutal nature of life and impose something better. In the week since they’d returned to school, she had begun to suspect Toby finally understood that fact; there was a directness in him beneath his serenity that hadn’t been there before, an unyielding oak behind the bending willow. The three paladins had been cagey about their experiences over the summer, but she was coming around to the opinion that some answers needed to be dragged out of them, one way or another. If nothing else, she very much wanted to know what had pounded some understanding into Toby.

He wasn’t the only one who still needed to absorb that lesson.

Teal’s consciousness shivered unhappily within her, and Vadrieny paused, taking a moment just to be with her counterpart, to acknowledge the love between them. It was love strained with growing tension, a complex state of emotions that, like the peace beneath the Great Tree, could not have easily been spoken but could absolutely not be denied.

The fortress was physically defined by the roots of the tree now supporting it as much as by its own shape. Apart from the cataclysmic battle that had wrecked it to its foundations, three thousand years atop a mountain had reduced worked stone to weathered shapes that might just as well have been so many boulders. It seemed as if the tree itself had made an effort to preserve what there was of the old fortress.

That might have been the literal case. Between gods, the Crawl, and the Golden Sea, she was well aware that a consciousness too diffuse to carry on a conversation could still have an agenda and the means to enact it.

Vadrieny climbed carefully up the roots to the trunk, balancing on each step without allowing her talons to dig into the wood. The colossal trunk was vertically flat on this side, enormous roots fanning out to embrace the ancient courtyard and leaving a towering, arched surface against the rear. In shape, it actually very much resembled a gate. There was no hellgate here, though, not even the distinctive prickle of infernal magic at work. This might be the least magically corrupted place she had ever visited; even the Temple of Avei had a martial harshness to its ambient energies, never mind that her Talisman of Absolution was meant to protect her from them.

The archdemon rested one clawed hand against the living wooden surface where, long ago, there had been a gate to Hell. One she had passed through in both directions.

Nothing here sparked even a hint of memory.

Wings folded, she climbed back down just as carefully and made a slow circuit of the courtyard on foot, gazing across every feature of the wood and stone encircling it.

Nothing.

Her eye was caught by a depression in the ground, slightly off-center from the gate. Vadrieny paced around it in a full circle, then stepped down into it and carefully stretched herself out.

Its walls were gently sloped after millennia of erosion, but with her wings spread behind her and limbs spread, it was almost like the base of the crater, over a yard down, was shaped like a person of about her dimensions. As if something had made a Vadrieny-shaped hole in the ground.

Then again, it was probably just the wind-carved remains of some forgotten artillery strike. Professor Tellwyrn had covered in detail the propensity of the sapient mind to find patterns that weren’t there and attach significance to things that had none.

She still lay there, though, staring up at the branches of the tree. The sheer size of the thing made it hard to get a sense of perspective; a tree that big was outside her frame of reference, and the sight messed with her instinctive sense of spatial relationships. But that, too, would be corrected with time and exposure, if they stayed here long enough.

It was funny, how you couldn’t really trust your own mind. Funny, and horrifying. Tellwyrn said the best you could do was to be aware of the ways it tended to go wrong, and try to account and compensate for them.

A lot of them could benefit from some practice at that art.

The distant yapping noise made Vadrieny clamber back out of the hole, snapping her wings once to dislodge dust, leaves, and stray bits of gravel. She turned toward the tumbled gap at the front of the courtyard that had once been its gates, pacing forward to meet what was coming.

He emerged over a low ridge of fallen rocks, bounding toward her in comical little leaps each punctuated by a yip. Vadrieny couldn’t help but smile as she met the young hellhound partway. F’thaan flopped over on his side upon reaching her, panting furiously, his tail beating an excited pulse against the dirt despite his obvious fatigue.

“Aw, buddy,” she murmured, ruffling his ears. He licked at her claws. “Poor guy, that was quite a hike, wasn’t it? And what did you do with Shaeine? You know you’re not supposed to run off on your own.”

F’thaan, unrepentant, struggled back upright and began pawing at her leg.

When the others caught up, they found Vadrieny sitting on a root, slowly stroking the half-grown pup draped over her lap, already sound asleep.

Shaeine quickened her pace, crossing the broken ground with that almost liquid glide of hers and nonetheless moving as fast as a human in a sprint. Vadrieny smiled, watching her approach. Just the sight of the drow—their wife, though neither of them was truly accustomed to the thought yet—was enough to make both her and Teal feel physically warmer, a blend of pure adoration and carnal hunger, neither of which showed signs of fading with familiarity. She was such a vision, a sleek, dainty specter of beauty and danger constrained by the serenity of her own will, those garnet eyes glittering with promises for no one else to interpret.

Shaeine slipped onto the root next to her and Vadrieny draped an arm and wing around her slim shoulders. For a moment the drow hesitated, stiffening barely perceptibly, then relaxed into the embrace. She took no offense; this was a public space, and those distinctions were drilled into her with a severity that went beyond culture and religion. The drow of Tar’naris couldn’t function without their rigid distinctions and hierarchies. Shaeine relaxing in public wasn’t a simple matter of coaxing her out of her shell. Even now, the bare extent to which she was willing to relax and show feeling around others was offered only to the handful of people now joining them.

The rest of the class of 1182 crossed the old courtyard more sedately, gazing around at the scenery now that they were satisfied Vadrieny didn’t need any immediate help.

“Well,” Ruda said aloud after they had assembled in a loose cluster near Vadrieny and Shaeine, the pirate tilting her head back with fists on hips to stare up at the swaying branches high above. “Whaddaya think of that?”

“I never thought I would say this,” Juniper murmured, “but this tree…makes me uneasy.”

“How’s that, Juno?” Gabriel asked.

“It feels…it smells…” The dryad shook her head, absently running a hand over the beak of her little bird-thing companion. “It’s not exactly the same, but the feeling I get from this tree makes me think…sister. And my knee-jerk reaction is that no, Mother would never do something like that. Then comes everything I’ve learned and I realize that yes, of course she would.”

Sniff leaned against her leg in silent support. Vadrieny would never have said so aloud, but she already liked the proto-bird better than Juniper’s last pet. Even with his training apparently just begun, Sniff behaved himself in public and actually performed useful tasks, two feats Jack had never managed.

“Nothing about this suggests sentience to me,” Fross buzzed, circling lazily above their heads. “I’ve never felt an instinctive kinship with dryads or other fairies, though. With the way pixies are raised, that really…wouldn’t work.”

Trissiny sat down on Vadrieny’s other side on the root, of course not nearly as close as Shaeine. “I don’t understand the magic at work here,” the paladin mused, also staring up at the tree, “but I could get used to it. This place feels…safe.”

“Yeah,” Vadrieny agreed, gently squeezing Shaeine’s shoulder, ever mindful of her talons. “For me, even. Safe, and unfamiliar.”

Trissiny looked at her, inquisitive but not pushing.

“I was worried,” the archdemon admitted. “You know I’ve had flashes before, little bits that rise to the surface. After what Tellwyrn said, I thought maybe a place like this would…” She trailed off, and shook her head. “I wanted to face it alone at first, just in case. But no, nothing. Not a twinge.”

Shaeine mutely rested a hand atop the claws that were slowly stroking F’thaan’s dark fur.

“I’m sorry, Vadrieny,” Toby said simply.

“No, it’s for the best. Like I said, I was worried, not hopeful. I think Trissiny put it best, back when we visited the Temple of Avei. My history is not a good one to have. However it came about, I got a blank slate, and… Some things about my existence now might be a little awkward, but whose life is perfect? I have everything anybody could reasonably desire.”

She shifted to press a brief kiss to Shaeine’s hair. Again, a fleeting stiffness passed through the drow’s body, instinctive discomfort with the display in front of others. It brought a responding pang from both Vadrieny and Teal, equally fleeting and then gone. Their relationship was necessarily complex, but all three of them understood it. Love soothed over many affronts, so long as it was nurtured.

Trissiny was gazing up at the tree again, her expression far away. “It’s so easy to forget that Elilial is a person. Was once, anyway. The choices she made were the ones that seemed best to her at the time, under circumstances I doubt any of us could even imagine living through. She was a friend to the Pantheon. I can’t help but wonder what could possibly have been going through her mind.”

“Sympathy for the Dark Lady, now,” Ruda said incredulously. “What the fuck did those thieves do to you, Boots?”

“Oh, it’s not just them,” Trissiny said with a passing grin. “And it’s not sympathy, just…understanding. Or an effort at understanding, anyway. The enemy you refuse to understand is the one who’ll defeat you.”

“Careful with that, though,” Gabriel murmured, also staring up at the tree. “What you understand too deeply, you become. If you’re not practiced at taking that mask off when you’re done with it, you might find it stuck in place.”

“I can’t conjure up any sympathy for…my mother,” Vadrieny said quietly. “Whatever the reasons for her choices, she made them. I can’t imagine anything that justifies the harm she’s done to the world and everyone on it. Thinking about the fact that I used to be a willing part of that… The sensation is like vertigo. But,” she added in a softer tone, “I do wish I could have known my sisters.”

Shaeine deliberately leaned her head against Vadrieny’s shoulder, nodding once to rub her cheek against her.

“It must be hard to disentangle those things, huh,” Fross said, fluttering down to hover in front of the archdemon. “I feel like I don’t get to hear your perspective very much, Vadrieny. I’m sorry to just be hearing about this now.”

“It’s fine,” she said, smiling. “And it’s not so very hard to reconcile. All I have to do is remember that, in the end, Elilial and her schemes are the reason I don’t have sisters.”

“Vadrieny,” Trissiny said seriously, turning again to face her, “I don’t really know if I can call you sister. I mean, whether that closeness has been earned. But after the last two years I can say that I would be honored to.”

“How is that done?” Shaeine asked suddenly. “In your Sisterhood, that is. I assume there is some rite of adoption that links sisters in arms?”

“Well, not…explicitly,” Trissiny said with a thoughtful frown. “There are formalities in joining either the Legions or the clergy, of course. And within those groups there’s a very strong sense of sorority. But then, the doctrine of the faith teaches that there is a universal sisterhood among women. It’s…well, it’s vague, Shaeine. I, uh, guess it’s all very un-Narisian. All feelings and personal judgment and working things out organically, how matters stand between any two particular women.”

“I see,” Shaeine murmured. “I have been… More and more, lately, I struggle to reconcile the different parts of my life. I will never be anything but Narisian, nor do I desire to. But I feel I have become sufficiently Imperial that… That the very barriers I must keep up to protect my own identity have begun to pain me. There are people I no longer wish to keep on the other side of them…people for whom adoption into my House is simply not a prospect.”

“Aw, honey,” Ruda said, grinning as usual, but with sincere compassion now. “We all love you, too.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel added. “Ruda even declined to punch you, that’s gotta show how serious she is. Remember that time she—”

“Fucking stabbed you,” all eight of them chorused, Ariel included. F’thaan raised his head, peering sleepily around at them.

“I just want to make sure everyone remembers,” Gabriel said primly.

“The record time elapsed between you making sure we remember is one week,” Fross informed him. “I have kept track.”

“Course you have, Fross.”

“I have a question,” Vadrieny said suddenly, “for Toby and Trissiny. And Gabriel, I suppose. The Pantheon-trained among us.”

“Oh?” Toby asked.

Vadrieny drew a deep breath, seeking to still the emotional clamor rising up in her. Most of it wasn’t hers. “What is it that defines a bard?”

A beat of silence passed. The first hints of tension gathered in it.

“Based on that lead-in,” Trissiny said in a careful tone, “I assume you’re not interested in an easy definition covering musical ability or membership in the Vesker cult.”

“Sort of? My knowledge of the Vesker cult is thirdhand, at best. We’ve had a conversation with Vesk himself, and yet…”

“Control,” Toby said quietly.

Everyone turned to look at him.

“The world isn’t made of stories,” he said, “it’s made of math. But the way people perceive the world is made of stories. Thought is narrative, that’s the heart of Vesker doctrine. Every cult, every tradition, ever mortal pursuit, is an attempt at control through some method or other. If you think of the core actions of Avenists, of Eserites, of Elilinists or Omnists or anyone, it all comes down to a belief about what the world should be and a set of actions intended to make it so. Including, necessarily, a means of imposing your will on the people who have a different vision. Veskers…bards…do it by stepping into the story and controlling how it develops. You can’t change the physical world that way, but you can certainly change the way people perceive what’s happening to them. And therefore, what they decide to do about it. At least,” he added with a self-conscious little shrug, “that’s the theory.”

“That…is really well-put,” Vadrieny said slowly. “Thank you, Toby. That tracks perfectly with everything I’ve learned from Teal. When she would read adventure stories as a girl, it was always the bards she admired because they got done what they needed to without resorting to force, or even trickery a lot of the times. It was like they just… Knew how people worked, and got the results they needed from that.” She nodded, gently squeezing Shaeine. “Teal never laid it out in those terms, but that’s what it was. Skillful, passive control.”

In the quiet, there was only the breath of wind across the courtyard, the sound of air through leaves so high above them and in so vast a spread of branches that it was like the sound of a nearby sea.

“This is an awkward silence,” Fross stated at last. “The thing we are all carefully not saying is how Teal does absolutely none of any of that.”

All of them lowered their eyes, Gabriel and Trissiny sighing softly. Shaeine once again pressed her head against Vadrieny’s shoulder.

“I don’t know if I could even tell you how hard it is to have to do this,” Vadrieny whispered, “but by myself, I can’t make her… It’s getting to be too much. She depends on Shaeine to make any arrangements to ward off conflict, and on me to smash down whatever else slips through. And if Teal was weak, or stupid, I could accept that. There’s nothing I would not do to protect her, and my love for her isn’t contingent on anything she does. But she doesn’t need this. She’s so smart, and so gifted, and so averse to proving it! And so, so afraid of her own capacity to do anything that she…doesn’t. As if exerting any energy onto the world were an act of violence.”

“I recently received a stern lecture about confusing pacifism with passivity,” Toby said with a sigh. “I think Teal could’ve benefited from hearing it, too.”

“Okay, I need to interject something here.” Ruda stepped forward, and then crouched on her heels in front of Vadrieny so that she was looking up at the seated archdemon from a lower position. “I really feel like we don’t get to talk with you nearly enough, Sparky, and I really hate the thought of asking you to go back inside so we can talk to Teal instead. But the fact is we’re now criticizing a friend behind her back and that really sits badly with me.”

“Teal is fully conscious of this conversation,” Trissiny pointed out, her forehead creased in a worried frown.

“Yeah,” Ruda retorted, scowling back, “but she’s not able to have her say in it!”

“Teal does not need to have her say,” Shaeine whispered. All of them turned to stare at her in naked surprise. The priestess squeezed her eyes shut, visibly struggling for control, then turned and wrapped both arms around Vadrieny, pressing herself close. “My beloved, light of my universe… There is nothing I would not do for you. I have broached this gently, and in private, and you don’t hear. I cannot fail to serve you as you need from your mate…and if that means I must shame you before our friends, I will not flinch from it. I will abase myself in whatever manner I must to earn your forgiveness again, but they are right. You need to shut up and hear this.”

She buried her face in Vadrieny’s collarbone, shoulders quivering with barely-repressed sobs. The demon swept a glowing wing around Shaeine, all but hiding her from view and cradling her head with one clawed hand.

“Love,” Toby said in a soft cadence as if reciting something, “means placing another’s needs before your own. And sometimes, what a loved one needs is a swift kick in the ass.”

“There will be no abasing,” Vadrieny murmured, caressing Shaeine’s hair with careful talons. “She adores the air you breathe, aithrin. And she knows we’re right about this. These are family. There’s nothing to forgive.”

“Man, this is really uncomfortable,” Ruda grumbled, standing back up and beginning to pace. “Putting all my instincts against each other, here. You gotta have straight talk between friends, but you can’t do it at somebody who can’t talk back…but fuck if this isn’t overdue. Teal, you’re the sweetest human being alive and I love you like my own blood, but Naphthene’s tits, girl! It kills me how you refuse to deserve the respect I know you’re capable of earning. Aw, fuck me running, now you assholes’ve got me doing it.”

She savagely kicked a chunk of masonry from its millennia-old resting place.

“So…yeah,” Fross chimed awkwardly. “This here is a whole set of issues, isn’t it? I, uh, I’m pretty out of my element, too. Just like to add that I also love Teal and I dunno what to do about any of this, but if somebody does you can count on me.”

“Growth can’t really happen without pain,” Juniper murmured, chewing at her bottom lip. “Sometimes… I guess sometimes you have to try to cut in the right place, so it heals the right way.”

“Growth, like healing, is a process,” Toby added, nodding. “What’s important is that we will be here for each other. There are no magic solutions to things like this.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “Actually…”

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15 – 19

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“Don’t make that face, I’m not saying anything about what any other woman can or should do. Everybody has a perfect right to be angry when some fool is leering.” Ruda pressed a hand to her chest, trying to put on a solemn expression through which a mischievous grin kept cracking. “All I’m saying is that I, for my money, don’t mind it.”

“If your next comment is that it’s actually a compliment…”

“Oh, bullshit, gross dudes are gross and we all know it. I’m a pragmatist above all, is my point, and I’ve noticed men are easily distracted. Especially the dumb ones who cause trouble. If some goon is starin’ at my bajongulars, he’s probably not doing anything I’ll actually need to put a stop to.”

Trissiny heaved a deep sigh. “Ruda, what did we discuss about you making up horrible new slang?”

“Hmm.” Ruda screwed up her face and tapped at her lips with a finger in a decent imitation of Tellwyrn. “Didn’t we decide you were a big ol’ stick in the mud?”

“Yeah, that sounds familiar.”

Now it was Ruda who side-eyed her roommate for a moment before returning her attention to the rocky trail up the mountainside. “Y’know, I’m not sure I like this new and improved you. Used to be I could make you all huffy and frustrated with just a comment. It was reliable, cheap entertainment.”

“The Thieves’ Guild, ladies and gentlemen,” Trissiny said airily. “Ruining your fun for eight thousand years.”

“Yeah, well, don’t get cocky, Shiny Boots. I bet I can still make you stammer and blush. Let’s see, wasn’t I at one point about to describe all the stuff I’m pretty sure Prince Sekandar wants to do with your legs and a crock of butter?”

“For somebody who cares so much about being the baddest girl in the party, it’s awfully bold for you to set up situations that end with me kicking your ass.”

Ruda actually stumbled.

“Wow, I see what you mean!” Fross chimed. “Trissiny never used to win these arguments.”

“Nobody won nothin’!” Ruda barked. “There was a rock! I’m still in this!”

“Sometimes, Ruda,” Shaeine said, projecting serenity like a cloud of perfume, “the only remaining victory is to bear defeat with the utmost grace.”

Ruda half-turned to squint irritably at her, risking another stumble on the uneven path. “You’re just taking advantage of the fact I won’t sucker-punch the most phlegmatic member of the group.”

“And thus my point is proven,” Shaeine said with a beatific smile.

“Shut up, Arquin,” Ruda grumbled, turning her back on the group and in particular his gales of laughter.

Trissiny, smiling, veered over and bumped her roommate lightly with her shoulder. Ruda jostled her back, and then they carried on in silence.

“I’m pretty sure we’re just about there,” said Toby, pointing. “Or is that merely a…random patch of forest in the middle of the mountains?”

Their guides said they were making excellent time through the crags of the Wyrnrange, which meant they should reach their destination at some point today. Evidently the mountains in general had been much quieter since the Conclave of the Winds had formed, but the paths leading to the Desolate Gardens were usually left alone by dragons. According to their guides, that was more out of respect for Ampophrenon the Gold, who led the Order of the Light that maintained the Gardens, than for any pilgrims who wanted to visit. Now, up ahead, a crown of greenery was suddenly visible peeking out from behind a jagged promontory.

“That’s no mere forest,” Sister Elaine replied, giving him a smile. The more personable of the two Order guides sent to escort them, she had mostly taken over interacting with the students while her counterpart, Brother Toraldt, had grown quieter all through the first day and had not actually spoken to them since they broke camp that morning. The dwarf had a very formal way of conducting himself and appeared put off by the banter and general tomfoolery which prevailed among a party that included all three living paladins. Elaine, a human woman who had the broad shoulders of a Legionnaire and clearly was not discomfited after a two-day mountain hike despite her lined face and mostly gray hair, was more laid back in temperament, as she demonstrated again by playing tour guide. “We are, indeed, on the final leg of this journey. What you see is the Great Tree itself, the only known offshoot of the World Tree which is hidden in the Deep Wild. In fact, I believe it is the physical evidence of Naiya’s only contribution to the well-being of mortal people. She sent this sapling in the custody of the dryad Rowan to permanently seal the breach where the great hellgate had been. The Great Tree grows out of what was once the most tainted spot upon this earth, and today is one of the most sacred.”

“I’ve been really looking forward to seeing this,” Juniper said pensively, her eyes fixed on the distant tree’s canopy. Despite the distraction, she seemed to have no trouble finding her footing upon the trail, loose scree and all. Juniper’s very gait had shifted over the summer; she had begun to step softly and deliberately, as if every step was a meditative act. At least, sometimes she did. When caught up in conversation or other distractions the dryad often slipped back into old habits.

“All that is one tree?” Gabriel said, craning his neck to peer upward, and then stumbling over a rock. “Wait, how close are we exactly?”

“That is one tree, Gabriel,” Elaine replied. “It’s not called the Great Tree for nothing, after all. And we are, in fact, not all that close. I’ve not taken a yardstick to it myself, obviously, but I’ve heard it said that the Great Tree doubles the height of the mountain upon which it stands.”

The procession continued more quietly up the last few miles of mountain pass, as the afternoon wore on and even until, finally, the sky began to redden subtly over the peaks to the west. Though they did talk, off and on, the students spent more of their time occupied in peeking around the twists of the ancient trail at the looming tree ahead, when they weren’t concentrating on where to put their feet. At any rate, the joking trailed off considerably, to the point that even Toraldt’s expression grew less disapproving.

He and Elaine remained up in the front, with Ruda and Trissiny alternately abreast of and right behind them, depending upon how wide a given stretch of the trail was. The rest of the students trailed along after, with Principia and Merry bringing up the rear, the latter sweating and somewhat out of breath. Legion physical standards notwithstanding, of the two of them climbing mountains in full armor, only one had elvish stamina.

They could see long before reaching its base that the Great Tree was well-named.

It was believable that it added the height again of the very mountain upon which it stood; very much like a mountain, it spread outward both above and below to form a solid base, its truly titanic root system seeming to thread over a space much wider than the mountain peak. By the time they passed around the final plateau which stood between them and their destination they were already beneath the outermost spread of the Tree’s leaves, and had long since begun to pass by the root system itself.

In fact, on the very last leg of their journey, they found themselves walking between a cliff wall on one side and the bulk of a huge root on the other. The root itself was practically a cliff in dimensions, arcing away to a height on their left that was above the crowns of some lesser trees could reach. Moreover, as they drew fully in sight of the Great Tree’s trunk and base, the path actually shifted until it was upon the root itself, at first partially and then entirely. An L-shaped divot had been cut out of the living wood, leaving a wall to one side and floor beneath, and making the transition seamless. Easier, in fact, as the bark provided good footing and there was no more loose scree upon which to stumble.

“Wait,” Juniper said suddenly, stopping and reaching over to run her fingers slowly along the rough surface of the root wall. “This…wasn’t cut.”

“The Great Tree gives us many blessings,” Elaine said with a smile. “The Order has never had to take an ax to her; the very idea would be abhorrent. She had obligingly grown in patterns that aid us in protecting the sanctity of this place.”

“So the tree did this voluntarily?” Ruda prodded the root with her toe. “Huh. Um, exactly how smart is this thing?”

“I understand you have journeyed both into the Crawl and the Golden Sea?” Elaine asked.

“We have,” Toby replied when no one else did after a pause.

“Then this will be familiar to you,” she said, still smiling. “The Tree does have an intelligence of her own, but a very…diffuse one. In ordinary circumstances, one does not communicate or connect with her at all. And when people have, they described the communion as quite unfathomable. Like talking to someone lightly asleep but still oddly reactive.”

“Sort of like a god,” Trissiny murmured.

That proved too much for Toraldt. “I would hardly suggest that a god of the Pantheon might have so unfocused an intelligence, General Avelea,” he said disapprovingly.

She turned to him with a deliberately mild expression. “It depends a lot upon the circumstances in which one meets them. I am speaking from experience. How many gods have you met, Brother?”

“We had a pretty interesting summer,” Gabriel added, grinning.

Toraldt frowned deeply, but he seemed more puzzled than annoyed; at any rate, he made no further comment.

“Well!” Sister Elaine cleared her throat. “On we go, then.”

The rest of their path was entirely along the conveniently flat surface of massive roots, first upon the one laid down in the canyon trail, and then climbing another which formed a neat bridge up to another plateau that afforded a splendid view of the Great Tree itself. This was clearly the main organizational center of the Desolate Gardens; the root-bridge deposited them in a broad square abutting the edge of the plateau upon one side, with a tall fountain in its center and a ring of weathered stone structures on the other edge. The group gave all that little attention, though, spreading out as soon as they had the room and turning to stare at the Tree which reared up on another flattened peak in the near distance.

Its height was difficult to guess at a glance, simply because they lacked a mental frame of reference for a tree that huge. The trunk rose directly behind the ruins of some ancient castle of black volcanic stone, now half-crumbled and seemingly held up as much by the colossal root system bracing it as by any engineering of its own.

“The Tree herself stands exactly where the Mouth once was,” Elaine said, stepping forward to one end of the line in which they arranged themselves to gaze out at the view. “Or at least, that is where she was planted. Ever since, she has grown in a shape to preserve that fortress; even her trunk itself expanded only toward the other side, to leave clear the space in what was once the courtyard. That is why the trunk seems oddly flat from this angle. Now, you may be assured this place is entirely free of infernal taint, but once upon a time, that fortress was raised by the legions of Hell itself, at Elilial’s own command. It was the citadel and first staging area from which the Third Hellwar was launched. The final battle occurred here, beginning in this very spot: this is the plateau where Lord Ampophrenon marshaled his forces for the last attack. In that courtyard he and those of his allies who survived the engagement confronted Elilial herself, and bargained with the lives of her own captured daughters to ensure her surrender and departure from this world, and the closure of the Mouth. The mortal hosts were not foolish enough to trust in her word alone to keep the gateway shut, of course. It was a rare time of cooperation, when humans, elves, and dwarves all lent their craft to the sanctification of this place, culminating in Rowan’s visit and the planting of the Great Tree. And there she stands to this day, making of what was once the world’s very center of corruption a place, now, of peace and purity.”

Silence fell after she finished speaking, though it held for only a few seconds.

Teal turned toward Shaeine, and the two exchanged a silent look laden with meaning. Teal took the drow’s hand and gently squeezed, then slowly shifted. As usual, Vadrieny rose to stand half a foot taller upon her colossal talons. Shaeine’s slender fingers looked even more delicate, wrapped around those huge black claws, but the archdemon only gave them another, impossibly gentle squeeze, then just as gently released her.

Then she spread her huge wingspan and launched herself skyward. In seconds she had soared away, arcing up and then down into the ruined courtyard of the ancient fortress, where she was lost to sight behind the roots and walls.

“Oh. Oh, dear,” Toraldt fretted. “I’m not sure that’s…”

“Vadrieny is a friend,” said Trissiny. “Now.”

“Can someone truly still be a person they once were, if they have no memory of it?” Juniper asked, staring after Vadrieny and absently scratching the crest of feathers atop Sniff’s head. “Choices make us who we are. As terrible as it must be to lose all of yours, it does mean you can become someone entirely new.”

“What do you think?” Toby asked quietly, stepping up next to Shaeine as she stooped to pick up F’thaan, who was yipping at the distant tree in agitation after Vadrieny’s departure. “Would she prefer to be alone?”

“They need to face this with only one another,” Shaeine said, stroking the little hellhound’s head until he quieted. “But…only for a time. I think that by the time I can reach them on foot, they’ll both want the company of family.”

“You’re going alone, then?” Trissiny asked.

Shaeine turned, her garnet-colored eyes darting across the group. Uncharacteristically, her white eyebrows drew together in a muted expression of consternation, one that would have been barely perceptible on most people but was practically glaring in contrast to her usual reserve.

“This is…difficult. For my people, in the traditions in which I am invested, concepts such as ‘family’ are defined most rigidly and with great formality. But…but to Teal, and to Vadrieny, you are all as precious as blood. I think… I believe they would want to have you nearby.” She hesitated, making a tiny noise as if clearing her throat, though of course Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion never betrayed such discomfiture in public. “Though the reverse of that is that we’ve all just hiked up the mountains for most of the day, and neither would blame you in the slightest if you decided to rest here, first.”

“We’d blame us,” Ruda said firmly.

“’zactly,” Gabriel agreed. “Well said.”

“You all right, June?” Toby asked. “Sorry, not to hover or anything, but the memory of you collapsing in the Sea is kind of burned into my eyes…”

“You’re a good dad, Toby,” the dryad said fondly. “Anyway, yeah, I’m fine. It’s running that does me in; steady movement as actually pretty comfortable. C’mon, our friends need us.”

“I…value all of you,” Shaeine said, still looking strangely uncertain. “Tremendously.”

Her mouth opened once more, as if she planned to continue, then she abruptly turned and stepped onto the root bridge again. The rest of them followed immediately, forming a neat line upon the narrow path and leaving their somewhat bemused escorts behind.

“Well!” Principia said brightly when even Fross’s glow had vanished over the edge of the cliff. “I guess that leaves us to settle in. Which is going to be done where, again?”

“Ah.” Elaine tore her eyes from the spot where the students disappeared. “Well, of course, the Desolate Gardens are meant to be a place of contemplation and spiritual retreat, not a place of comfort. The Order provides necessities for visiting pilgrims, but…not more. You may have noticed the structures behind us have doorways and windows, but neither wood nor glass. They are left that way deliberately. There is space to sleep, but it will be very much like camping. Fortunately, the young ones seemed quite comfortable with that yesterday.”

“That sounds absolutely perfect,” Principia assured her. “I always say too much comfort is bad for people, especially young people. That building over there open? Excellent. C’mon, Lang, let’s stow everybody’s gear and have a spot ready for whenever they get back.”

“I wouldn’t be altogether sure how soon that will be,” Elaine said, again frowning in the direction of the old fortress and the mighty tree which embraced it. “The journey to that spot in particular is… Well, it’s usually the final goal of pilgrims here, not the first. That place is at the center of the Great Tree’s own focus, and swirls with ancient power. Whatever they have come here to find, they will find it there.”

“Leave it to those kids to skip all the preliminary steps,” Merry grunted. “Not to mention leaving all their rucksacks here. I hope they don’t expect me to figure out which belongs to who.”

“Less whining, more hauling,” Prin said cheerfully. “On the double, corporal.”

“Let us help you with those,” Toraldt offered.

“Oh, that’s okay,” she said, already loading her arms with discarded supply bags. “You two’ve done the lion’s share of work getting us here; let a couple of troopers feel useful for a change.”

“How’d you like to feel useful enough for the both of us, LT?”

“What did I just say about whining?”

“Same thing you always say, so as I usual I assumed you didn’t mean it. Since you know it never stops the whining.”

“You’re lucky I find you so harmlessly, ineffectually amusing, Lang,” Principia rejoined, already trotting off toward one of the empty Order structures with her armload of bags. “Hell, you’re lucky anybody does.”

“Seriously, though, LT,” Merry said more quietly as they neared the building, passing out of earshot of their two Order guides. “Aren’t you concerned we’re getting a little…off-mission, here?”

“This is the mission,” Principia replied, stepping into the shadowed doorway. Beyond was an open common room with more dark doorways branching off. There was a fireplace, currently dark and cold but with wood stacked nearby. Old torches sat in iron sconces around the walls; unsurprisingly, there was not a trace of modern fairy lighting. The place was dim, in the little daylight that streamed through its open windows, but at least it was clean.

“Eugh,” Merry grunted, dropping her armload of the students’ belongings in an unceremonious heap. “What do you suppose passes for plumbing out here?”

“It’s astonishing to me how bloody spoiled a soldier on duty can be. A hundred years ago your first task on making camp would’ve been digging your own damn latrines.”

“Last Rock is the mission,” Merry said, resuming both the discussion and her more serious tone. “You might have noticed we’re now about thirty clicks beyond hell and gone from there, LT.”

“I think you underestimate the size of the initial success that was represented by Arachne not teleporting both of us into the sun. She explicitly threatened to toss me through a hellgate if I ever showed my face in Last Rock again.”

“And you still went there?” Merry’s eyebrows shot upward. “You know what’s infuriating? I honestly have never been able to figure out of if you plan everything twelve steps beyond everyone else, or are just reckless and have been lucky this far because it never occurs to anyone you even might be doing something as crazy as you always are. Either one explains you so perfectly.”

“It’s all about knowing your battleground and your enemy, Lang,” Principia said, turning a sly smile on her after depositing her own armful of knapsacks more carefully on the floor. “Arachne fully means those things when she threatens them, but by the time a year has passed she rarely cares enough to be bothered carrying them out. Honestly, the fact she doesn’t carry grudges like a normal elf is one of her more redeeming qualities. Anyway, this is the situation we’re in. This is what we had to do to establish relations with the University as the High Commander ordered, and so here we are.”

“You don’t think it’s significant that Tellwyrn’s first act was to send us as far from her University as she could?”

“This is nothing like as far as she could send us, Lang. We’re with one of her precious student groups, albeit the one that needs us least. Trust me, this is working. Sure, the manner of it isn’t what Rouvad wanted—or what I did—but in life as in war you rarely get what you’d like best. Victory comes from learning how to turn setbacks into opportunities. That’s the key. There’s always some way to take advantage of whatever mess befalls you, if you can only figure out how.”

Merry heaved a sigh, then crossed back to the doorway to peer out at the sunset. “Yeah? I dunno, Locke, it kinda seems like the opposite is happening. I’m sure you’ve noticed these kids appear to want you dead.”

“Do they?” Principia mused, her smile widening.

“It’s…weird.” Merry turned back to her with a frown. “I thought they seemed pretty relaxed about your mutual history in Puna Dara. But then the General and the drow were added to the mix and suddenly I was sure one of the girls was going to push you over a cliff on the way here.”

“Nothing so murderous, I assure you,” Principia said, now openly grinning. “Let me put it this way: they’re kids, I’m an authority figure—to my own surprise—and now they’ve picked up one of their number with an ax to grind. It’s actually a good sign that they’re close enough to absorb one another’s attitudes that quickly, and revealing how they all pick up on Shaeine’s dislike in particular. Even Trissiny, who I’d have thought would step into the role of leader, both because of her own personality and because Hands of Avei generally do. And yet, here we are! Learning fascinating things.”

“Things that might still get you pushed off a cliff.”

“It won’t come anywhere near that.” Principia shook her head. “They’ll find a way to get their own back and feel vindicated. And in fact, I intend to help them.”

“You?” Merry put on a shocked face. “Embrace humility? I will believe that when I see it. Wait, actually, on second thought I might not.”

“You’ve never actually seen me deserve a comeuppance, Lang,” Principia said mildly. “This may not be the kind of thing you’re accustomed to expecting from me, but punishment can be oddly therapeutic when you actually have it coming. We all crave a kind of balance with the world around us, and suffer when we’ve been pushed out of it, even by our own actions. And besides, the revenge of incompetent adversaries can be very profitable!”

“I keep forgetting how absolutely crazy you Eserites are,” Merry grunted.

“Think about it: if there’s some kind of drow honor thing at stake here, it’ll be something formal and complicated. Everything with Narisians is formal and complicated. A way will surface for me to offer some kind of proper amends to Shaeine and her family—and that will form a connection between us. Any connection can be exploited, Lang. It’s like I said: from setbacks, opportunity.”

Merry gave her an openly skeptical look, but didn’t argue any further, just turning back to the door and its view of the Great Tree, where their charges were now on their way to meet, apparently, their destiny.

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15 – 11

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“Do we really have to go already?” Aspen whined. “I like these people! They’re nice!”

“Do mean that in the sense that they actually are nice, or just that they fed you?” Ingvar replied dryly without slowing his pace.

“There’s no reason it can’t be both. Anyway, it’s afternoon! This is just about the worst time to be leaving a safe place to sleep, we’ve only got a few hours of travel time before dark.”

“There are hardly any unsafe places to sleep when you travel with a dryad,” Rainwood pointed out merrily.

“More important,” Ingvar added before Aspen could make another comment, “it is because these people are nice that we are taking ourselves and our very disruptive business away from their temple.”

“Oh.” Aspen scowled, turning her head to direct the expression over her shoulder. “Good, then. At least I know who to blame.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Tholi muttered. November, trailing along behind him at the end of the group, at least had the sense to keep her own mouth shut.

“It was pretty bad,” Ingvar stated. “When your shouting match can be heard through stone walls, you are officially not fit for civilized company. And I say that as someone who, like any Huntsman, does not have an excessively high opinion of civilized company. It isn’t hard to show some extremely basic consideration for other people. I can’t fathom any reason for two adult humans to be screaming like children in the front hall of monks who have offered them hospitality.”

“All right, all right!” Tholi exclaimed. “That was…a lapse. How long am I going to be hearing about it?”

“I’ll treat you in the manner your actions up to the moment have earned, Tholi. If you wish to be treated differently, every moment is an opportunity to begin building a new impression.”

“I’m just so glad all these people are coming with us,” Aspen groused. “I was getting real tired of all the peace and quiet when it was just the two of us.”

“Well, the good news is your sarcasm has improved greatly. I would never know you hadn’t been doing it your whole life.”

“Thanks a lot, Ingvar,” she demonstrated. “Why is the elf still here? I thought your spirit thingies just wanted you to bring us to the temple and…these two.”

“Evidently not,” Rainwood said. He was walking on the other side of Ingvar from her, a jaunty spring in his step that clashed with everyone else’s mood. “It’s a funny thing, spirit guidance; sometimes, the things it tells you to do are so downright odd as to seem like terrible ideas. I don’t mind admitting it took me longer than the average human lives to begin trusting my guides every time, but more than once my life has been saved by following guidance that at the time sounded suicidal. I’ve no idea where this merry adventure is leading us, but the word from the spirits is that my part in it is not over! Ah, and here’s our other new acquisition.”

“Other?” Aspen looked over at him with a frown, then forward again, and came to an abrupt stop. “Oh, no.”

“Oh yes, I’m afraid!” Rainwood said brightly, swaggering on ahead.

“Who’s that?” November asked in a stage whisper. “What’s the problem?”

They had descended the terraces of the Omnist temple complex in a different direction than the one from which they had come, and were now nearing the outer border on the road leading north west. A few yards ahead of them, on the edge of the lowest stone terrace, sat the same grouchy young woman who had first led them to the ziggurat. She was now perched in an indolent pose, kicking her legs against the retaining wall, and had traded her monk’s robe for a colorful tunic-like garment that was popular throughout N’Jendo and Thakar.

“There you are,” she said, hopping down to the road with a grunt. “I hear you’re off to the Shadow Hunter lodge next, right?”

“You hear that, huh?” Aspen said warily.

“I grew up in this hick-ass backwater, so I know where just about everything is,” the girl said. “I’ll take you there. My name’s Taka Mbino.”

“Nice to meet you again,” Ingvar said politely. “I’m—”

“Pretty sure I remember everybody,” Taka interrupted, grinning. “The great and famous Ingvar, Aspen the dryad, Rainwood the elf with the especially improbable name. And those two who obviously are too childish to matter.”

“Hey!” November protested. Tholi just scowled, adjusting his grip on his longbow.

“Yeah, thanks, but we’ve got an elvish shaman,” said Aspen. “Pretty sure we can find the way.”

“It’s no trouble,” Taka assured her, still grinning. There was a mocking cast to her features that few people had used with Aspen, to her visible annoyance. “It’s about time I moved on from here anyway. I gave Omnu a fair chance and I mean the big guy no offense, but I’m coming to the conclusion that this place is not for me. Maybe the Shadow Hunters are a better option.”

“Okay, fine,” Aspen snapped, “I’ll just come right out and say it. We don’t like you, Taka Mbino. You’re rude and snotty and full of yourself. I tried, Ingvar,” she added, turning to him. “I was polite and subtle at first, you saw me do it!”

“Uh huh,” Taka drawled. “And are you upset because I hurt your feelings, or because you don’t want the competition for the role of bitchy drama queen in the group?”

Aspen’s jaw fell open. For once, she appeared to have been rendered silent.

“You, uh, do realize this is a dryad, right?” November said hesitantly. “I don’t know if it’s a great idea to take that tone with somebody who can tear you in half the long way.”

“A daughter of the Mother is owed some consideration,” Tholi agreed, nodding reproachfully.

“I’ll keep it in mind. Welp, daylight’s burning. It’s this way.” Taka turned her back and set off up the road.

“What do the spirits say about this?” Ingvar asked quietly.

Rainwood just winked at him and set off following the young woman. Ingvar heaved a sigh, patted Aspen soothingly on the back, and followed. The dryad was growling to herself as she fell into step beside him, but at least she did so.

The other two started walking after a short pause, as well, but they both remained a few paces behind, where it was relatively safe.


Manor Dufresne was not laid out with guests in mind, these days. There seemed to be very little furniture in the public rooms and almost no decoration. Nonetheless, it did feature a dining room, and Malivette’s four thralls were quick to seat their reluctant visitors and kept them well-plied with tea, cookies, and as the time stretched on toward the dinner hour, sandwiches and soup. The four of them were never less than gracious hostesses, which at least somewhat offset Sherwin’s reminder that they were a significant physical danger, and the fact that they were, effectively, holding the group against their will.

When the door to the dining room abruptly opened and Natchua poked her head in, Melaxyna was the first on her feet.

“Well?” the succubus demanded, hands clenching.

“We’re leaving,” Natchua said tersely. “Come on.”

Pearl cleared her throat, gliding forward. “Your pardon, but…”

“It’s quite all right, lovey!” Malivette cooed, appearing in the doorway behind Natchua with her chin practically resting on the drow’s shoulder. “So sorry to keep you all waiting so long! We’ve had a lovely chat and come to a series of understandings. Melaxyna, dear, I do apologize for all the rough talk earlier. I’m ever so glad that this isn’t going to turn unpleasant after all!”

“Oh, well then,” Melaxyna said tonelessly. “As long as you’re sorry and glad, I guess what’s a death threat or two between friends?”

“I realize you’re mocking me but in all seriousness that is a very healthy attitude to take in this situation,” Malivette replied, nodding solemnly. Natchua, giving her a peevish look over her shoulder, edged out of the way while the vampire continued. “I meant it when I said I empathized with you, y’know. People are about as excited to see a vampire move into the neighborhood as a succubus, and for a lot of the same reasons. With the shoe on the other foot I’m sure you’d have reacted exactly the same. At least, if you were seriously looking after the welfare of the city. But that’s all in the past now!” she added, beaming delightedly at them.

“Wait, really?” Jonathan asked. Standing with his hand protectively behind Hesthri with his hand on her shoulder, he looked mostly confused by this turn of events. “Just…like that? After just…talking? Is that really all it took?”

“Dunno what you mean ‘just like that,’” Sherwin groused. “We’ve been kicking our heels in here over an hour…”

“And why are you arguing, she is letting us go,” Melaxyna hissed.

“I guess I’m just surprised,” he said, frowning. “Natchua, is everything all right?”

“Everything is wonderful,” the drow spat. “Now come on. I think we have imposed on the Lady Dufresne’s hospitality quite enough for one day.”

“Hear, hear,” Sherwin grunted, shoving himself away from the table with poor grace and stalking toward the door.

The rest of them followed, subtly encouraged by the herding motion of Malivette’s four companions gathering at the opposite end of the room. Their hostess and Natchua had both already retreated into the broad entrance hall onto which the dining room opened.

“And don’t you worry a bit about my hospitality,” Malivette nattered on, looping her hand into Natchua’s elbow as they walked toward the front doors. “My door is always open, and there are so few who would even want to take advantage! That goes for you, too, Sherwin. I know you’re a houseplant by choice, but seriously, you’d be welcome.”

He sighed heavily and produced a rusty pocketwatch from his trousers, looking at its face and then giving Natchua a very pointed stare.

“Anyway, now that we know we have actual things to talk about, I do hope you’ll pop by again.” Malivette affectionately bumped Natchua with her hip on the last word. The drow sighed and gently but insistently disentangled her arm, stepping away from the vampire.

“Seriously,” Jonathan said, frowning, “are you okay, Natchua? Keeping a succubus near a city isn’t a small matter. I hope you didn’t have to do anything too…”

“Nothing,” she interrupted. “It’s just as she said, we talked and reached an understanding. And now I really would like to be moving along.”

“Yeah, so,” Sherwin said, frowning himself now, “I’m glad Mel’s safe, then. Did you—”

“Sst!” Natchua rounded on him, baring her teeth.

“If this is about the hobgoblins,” Malivette said kindly, “I don’t care about that, so long as you stick to your plan of only summoning females. Very clever solution, that! And really, Sherwin, you could use the help. What would your family say if they saw the state you’ve let their manor come to?”

“Oh, who cares,” he exclaimed. “Good riddance to them. I’m not absolutely certain, Vette, but I’m reasonably sure they had a hand in what happened to your family.”

“No.” The cheer faded from her expression rather abruptly. “Have you been carrying that all these years? See, this is why I think we should talk more. No, Sherwin, that wasn’t their doing.”

“Oh.” He blinked. “Well. I guess…I’m glad to hear that. Not like I was close to your folks or anything, but the gods know they were better people than mine. Not that that’s setting a high bar.”

“I’m serious, Sherwin,” she said, her smile returning and looking all the more sincere for being smaller. “Visit me. But for now, I imagine you’re feeling a little overstimulated; this has to be more social interaction than you’ve had in the last year. Yes, you’re all clearly eager to be heading back, and I’ve already delayed you too long. My sincere apologies for the inconvenience, but the important thing is we got it all sorted in the end! Ruby, Jade, would you bring the carriage back around, please?”

“No need,” Natchua said curtly, gesturing the others toward her. “We’ll see you around, Vette.”

“Don’t be a stranger, Natch,” the vampire said, as brightly as ever. The last thing they all saw as the shadows rose up around them was her waving cheerily.

The darkness fell away to reveal late afternoon sunlight and the clean air of the mountains, with Manor Leduc’s ruined bulk rising in front of them. Sherwin heaved a deep sigh and immediately slouched off, heading for the half-overgrown path around the corner toward the old kitchen entrance.

“Whew,” Melaxyna exhaled. “I could have done without that. My kind like room to maneuver, not being tucked away under guard. Are you sure you’re okay, Natchua? You probably had it worse than any of us.”

“I appreciate everyone’s concern, but I wish you’d all drop it,” Natchua said in a strained tone. “It was fine. We talked. I’d have preferred keeping Malivette and everyone else out of my business, but sometimes you have to compromise. And I learned some interesting things today.”

“Oh?” Jonathan asked warily.

“I learned that drow are not edible to her kind,” she said, turning and following after Sherwin at a much more sedate pace. He had already disappeared around the corner. “And apparently vampires can drink demon blood, but it works more like a drug than food. I learned that vampirism is exceedingly difficult to cure even for modern alchemical science. I learned that Ravana bloody Madouri has been making political overtures to both Malivette and Sherwin, which surprises me not in the least given that sneaky little egomaniac’s idea of a good time. I even learned a good deal I didn’t particularly need to know about why she has four attendants instead of three or five and what exactly she does with them. It was all very educational.”

“Uh…huh,” he said, frowning at her back. “Well, sorry for prying, I guess. I can’t help feeling a little responsible for any, um, compromises you had to make, since it was all our necks on the line…”

“Compromises?” she snorted, glancing over her shoulder at him. “I said I’d try to protect you and I meant it, Jonathan. That doesn’t mean my first act in a crisis would be to offer my neck to a vampire on your behalf.”

“Well, that wasn’t…” He grimaced, glancing to the side, and thus missing Hesthri urgently shaking her head to ward him off this line of conversation. “I just meant, well, it was obvious enough from those four women what sort of personal company that vampire prefers, and… Not to be indelicate, but we pretty well know that you’re willing to—”

Natchua slammed to a stop and whirled so fast her streaked hair flared out behind her. Jonathan Arquin was nobody’s coward, but at the expression on her face he actually backed up a step, instinctively moving one arm partly in front of Hesthri.

The very sunlight seemed to fade, as if the drow’s fury were leeching brightness from that piece of the world. Shadows lengthened around them, followed by an unintelligible whispering at the faintest edge of hearing that was barely distinguishable from the now-vanished sound of wind through the grass.

Just as quickly, it all faded away. The sound and light returned abruptly to normal, and the rage melted from Natchua’s features. Followed, apparently, by most of her energy, as her shoulders slumped and she dropped her head to stare at the ground.

“Well, look at that,” she said dully. “Turns out I have absolutely no right to even be angry about that remark. Go…rest up, Jonathan. This mess has delayed us a whole day and I have another prospect to look up first thing tomorrow.”

Natchua turned and trudged away, visibly dispirited, even from behind. The rest of them stood as if rooted until she had rounded the corner into Sherwin’s kitchen apartment.

“Very nice,” Melaxyna finally said, veritably dripping with venomous sarcasm.

“I don’t need criticism from you,” Jonathan retorted with a scowl. “I was just… Never mind, she’s right. Doesn’t matter, not my business.”

“Oh?” The succubus leaned toward him, sneering. “Then why so protective, and why do you care what she does, or with who?”

“What kind of idiot wouldn’t care about the well-being of a warlock he’s agreed to follow arou— Hey!”

He shied back, but not fast enough to prevent her from lashing out to smack the side of his head. She moved almost like an elf when she wanted.

“Next time you get an armored hand,” Melaxyna threatened. “You want to care about Natchua’s well-being? Try not hurting her, you dumbass. Honestly, I didn’t see it till right now but you are so Gabriel Arquin’s father. He clearly didn’t get it from this one!” She pointed at Hesthri, who had kept her mouth firmly shut through the entire discussion.

“Oh, please,” he said stiffly. “I’m here to look after Hesthri, not…her. We know for a fact she was only ever using me.”

“You absolute fucking idiot,” Melaxyn said, shaking her head. “Have you really never had a girl fall in love with you? Pfeh.” The succubus turned and flounced off after the warlock, leaving the two of them behind.

Hesthri sighed softly, but then pressed herself against Jonathan’s side, slipping an arm around his waist in half a hug. He draped his own around her shoulders unthinkingly, still staring ahead with a blank expression. She just looked up at him in silence until he suddenly laughed.

“So that’s where he got it from!”

“He?”

Jonathan shook his head. “Toby Caine reports that our son has amazingly good luck with women, provided he’s not trying to. Apparently it’s the trying that trips him up. Hes… I don’t even know what to say. This whole mess—”

“None of this is your fault,” she interrupted, reaching up to rest her clawed fingertips gently on his lips. “I know what she did and why. You’re not to blame for having feelings. Natchua is to blame for…doing this. I am out of Hell, free from your government and Church and facing a possibility of seeing my son again; I can’t find it in me to complain too hard about all the downsides that have come with it. Honestly, I can’t even blame the girl for having emotions herself, or failing to understand them. It’s her mess, but we were young and blind ourselves once.”

“I seem to recall that,” he replied, looking down at her with a wry little smile.

“Me, too.” Hesthri smiled back at him, though the expression faded a moment later. “Johnny… Remember what happened to us when we assumed nothing as intangible as feelings was going to trip us up? This thing with Natchua is not your fault, but it’s also not going to go away if we just ignore it.”

He closed his eyes, and drew in a deep breath. “…yeah. Damned if I know what the hell to do now, though.”

“You may be a little too close to the situation, my dear. Maybe…take a step back, and let me try?”


As a consequence of traveling into a mountain range from the east, the sun had slipped out of sight far earlier in the evening—late afternoon, really—than the group from Last Rock were accustomed to. Their guides had insisted on calling a halt due to the dark, and though none of them were anywhere near sleepy yet, the day of hiking had left them well ready for a rest. Camp had been made on a smallish ledge which provided them sufficient room not to worry about falling off, but not room to wander too far from each other.

And yet, Principia had managed to be rebuffed by enough cold shoulders to find herself drifting away to the very edge of the firelight. As with everything, she bore this with good humor and no sign of resentment, even as Merry was drawn into the group around the fire, sitting between Ruda and Juniper and chattering animatedly with both.

A shape detached itself from the small crowd throwing shadows along the cliff wall behind them, stepping toward her with both hands carrying laden plates of cornbread and baked beans.

“Hungry?”

Given the Legion schedule of mealtimes and her own frugal magic use, it could well be years before Principia needed to eat again. She was not, of course, about to make an issue of that.

“Why, aren’t you thoughtful! I’m surprised, though. I thought it was Toby who made a point to look after everyone.”

“I am nothing if not a gentleman,” Gabriel said, grinning and offering one of the plates. “Shut up, Ariel.”

“I didn’t—”

“You were going to, and don’t. Please, allow me.” He actually bowed as she took the plate, then bent to brush dust and loose scree off an uneven little lip of stone against the wall behind them before gesturing for her to sit.

“A gentleman indeed,” Principia replied, perching on the edge and smiling up at him. “Which, no offense, doesn’t exactly square with your reputation.”

“Yeah, that’s the bane of my existence,” he said solemnly, sitting down beside her. “I can deal with the demon prejudice and the gossipy newspaper stories and all the silly rumor-mongering, but I wish everybody would stop repeating facts. Hope you like cornbread, by the way, because there’s going to be plenty left over. Most of this group won’t touch the stuff. Apparently they had a bad experience in the Golden Sea, once.”

“You’ve gotta learn to let these things go,” she said sagely, scooping up a bite of baked beans with the tin fork that came with the plate. “If I turned up my nose at everything that had ever been used against me at some point or another I’d starve. So, Gabriel, if you don’t mind a little nosiness, what makes you so willing to come hang out with the local pariah? As you noted, Toby I understand…”

“A little nosiness?” he mused, looking at her sidelong with a small smile, idly pushing beans and cornbread around on his plate. “Impressive restraint. In your position I’d be going whole hog and demanding everyone’s backstory.”

“Seems unfair,” she acknowledged after swallowing the bite. “Since I don’t really intend to recount my whole history. Of course, there’s the fact that we literally don’t have time for that…”

“Shaeine is your problem,” he said, now gazing at his friends around the fire. “She’s the most reasonable person I’ve ever known and I don’t think is even that vindictive. But you have to understand the Narisian mindset. Shaeine as a person is a distinct entity from Shaeine the daughter of her matriarch; the one can forgive little offenses, while the other has to insist on repercussions for shit done to her. Besides, not much is more important to Narisians than their reserve. Slipping her something that took that away, in public, is a far more serious insult than it would be to basically anybody else.”

“I see,” she murmured. “That’s…all fair.”

“Teal will follow Shaeine’s lead, of course,” he continued in a pensive tone, his gaze now faraway in thought as if he were lost in this mental exercise. “As will Vadrieny. I hardly think you need to worry about being torn in half by an archdemon, though. She’s a little impulsive, but above all Vadrieny cares for Teal, who hates violence.

“Trissiny is likely to back Shaeine in this. Apart from her own issues with you, those two have a unique bond, in this group. Not the closest bond, that would obviously by Shaeine and Teal. But they’re both devout, composed, and value all the things that implies. And they both have a slight cultural bias—not a really bad one!—against males, thus why Toby doesn’t get the same benefit of that sisterhood. If you want Triss back on your side, you will need to persuade Shaeine.”

He paused, shrugging idly, and had a bite of cornbread. Principia just chewed in silence, watching him as if she didn’t dare to interrupt.

Gabriel continued after swallowing. “Toby is everybody’s friend. Fross is not going to bother you; she hates practical jokes. She’s making good progress at grasping humor but she doesn’t really get the difference between attacking somebody playfully and aggressively, and I don’t think Fross is capable of harming anyone she doesn’t fully think deserves it. Juniper is trying to be a good Omnist now, and is scared of her own propensity for violence, anyway. You’ll have no trouble from her.

“Ruda…” He trailed off, then grinned. “Hell if I know. She values loyalty, fighting, playing rough, standing on your own, and freedom. That leads to some weird combinations of values. Ruda’s always doing stuff that I would never have expected but then in hindsight makes perfect sense. So far Shaeine’s just been tripping and poking at you, but if this keeps up Ruda might join in or butt out entirely or maybe try to get her to back down. I have no damn idea. It’s always an adventure with her.”

Principia had given up all pretense of eating now, just watching his face. She let the silence hang for a few moments before speaking in a carefully neutral tone.

“That’s a very thorough report, Gabe. And what about the last person it’s missing?”

“Well! I’m not really objective about that, am I?” He turned a grin on her, setting his fork down on his plate. “Tell you what: after Puna Dara, I bet a smart lady like you has a pretty good measure of me anyway. And you’re also a hobbyist enchanter, right? So I bet you’ll have plenty of time to suss out where I stand on this whole thing while you’re figuring a way off that adhesive charm you just sat on. G’night, Lieutenant.”

He stood up with no more ado and sauntered off back to the fire.

Principia watched him go for a moment. Then she experimentally shifted. Her hips had barely an inch of leeway to move and wouldn’t rise at all off the stone. The elf grinned and leaned back against the cliff wall, spearing a bite of baked beans.

“Well. She’s got a good group of friends, anyway. Excellent.”


“Whew,” McGraw grunted, glancing back at the town. “Not to carp on about it, but why that town? I’m pretty sure I mentioned I am specifically unwelcome in Last Rock.”

“Aw, y’big baby, it’s fine,” Billie said cheerfully, slapping his thigh. “We didn’t get arrested or blown up, which is my standard fer a successful visit. Oy, this tallgrass is a towerin’ pain in the arse! I can’t see fer shite. Who wants t’give the gnome a piggyback ride?”

“What, all the way to the center?” Weaver snorted. “Dream on. Just keep making noise so we don’t lose you.”

“You wanna get from Tiraas to the Golden Sea frontier, Last Rock is the most direct route,” Joe said, pushing strands of tallgrass out of his way. “Anyway, no harm came of it. Which is good; it was enough of an ordeal getting this one into the caravan.” He grinned and flicked the tail of the nigh-omnipotent immortal hitching a ride on his shoulder. Mary didn’t deign to transform back and make a comment, though she did turn and peck him on the ear. “Ow. So, I take it spending the night in the inn back there is off the table? Cos not to complain, but it’s not more’n two hours before dusk. Basically the worst possible time to be headin’ out on a camping trip.”

“Everyone in this group is either perfectly comfortable sleeping rough, or actually prefers to,” Weaver grunted. “Under the circumstances I figure we can afford to cater to McGraw’s irrational fear of that poor little town.”

“A pissed-off archmage ain’t an irrational fear,” McGraw retorted. “Least, I wouldn’t call her that to her face.”

“Almost a shame,” Joe said lightly. “I was sorta lookin’ forward to explorin’ back there. Man, that place has changed—an’ fast! Sarasio’s havin’ kind of a boom the last year or so, too, but nothin’ like that.”

“Sarasio doesn’t have a world-famous University,” said McGraw. “These little frontier villages rarely get the luxury of stasis, Joe. They either wither away or grow into somethin’ more. Progress marches on.”

“Aye, lotta marchin’ goin’ on here, innit?” Billie said. “Ey, Joe, how’s about ye lend me yer other shoulder?”

“Why’s it always me?” he complained.

“Cos Elias is old an’ delicate an’ Damian’s a fuckin’ grouch.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Weaver grunted, and suddenly bent over in the tallgrass. One short scuffle and a whoop from Billie later, he reappeared with her riding on his shoulders. “Omnu’s balls, you just like to complain, I swear.”

“Oh, an’ that doesn’t describe you to a ruddy T, eh?”

He strode through the tallgrass and the falling dusk in silence for a few yards, holding her ankles and staring ahead at the distant horizon.

“Listen… All of you. Not that I want to make a whole thing of this, but—”

“Aw, come off it,” Billie said fondly, patting his head. “Breakin’ character fer one minute won’t kill ye. We’ll all still know yer a ruddy asshole come sunup.”

Weaver came to a stop, and the others did likewise. He regarded each of them for a moment in the fading orange sunlight.

Then he actually smiled. The unaccustomed expression transformed his whole face.

“Thanks. All of you.”

McGraw and Joe both tipped their hats in silence. Mary croaked and ruffled her feathers.

Then, as one, the group turned and marched off again, heading north toward the frontier and the unconquerable wilderness beyond.

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15 – 8

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It took several hours for Sherwin to find her. Not that there were all that many places in Manor Leduc where one could safely go without risking a fall through the rotted floorboards; it simply took him that long to go looking. He had been very much preoccupied.

“Ah, there you are,” Natchua said as he stepped into the room, not looking up. She was inscribing runes on the floor in living fire with movements of her hands, not troubling with chalk and powder. “Upright and hale, I see. Make sure to get plenty of fluids and don’t let her blindfold or tie you up. Not that Melaxyna will do you any actual harm, but a Vanislaad’s idea of fun gets abruptly less fun for everyone else the second they have you completely in their power.”

“I’ll, ah, bear that in mind,” Sherwin mumbled, adjusting his untucked shirt self-consciously as he crept into the room. “This was my… That is, this particular basement chamber…”

“Yes, I know, it was described to me in detail,” she replied. “Sorry I didn’t get to see it with all the holy symbols still installed. That sounds like quite a feat of magical engineering.”

“Right, well… Natchua, why are you summoning hobgoblins in my house?”

“Horogki,” she corrected. “The common name is pretty misleading, they’re more closely related to gnomes than goblins. And not to quibble, but I am banishing one.”

“Was it something I said?” wheedled the specimen in the circle around which she was conjuring runes. He, as well as the two other hobgoblins standing in similar containment circles farther back in the room, was a creature about four feet tall with scaly crimson skin and large ears, as well as orange eyes that glowed around slitted black pupils. Apart from that, they did very much resemble gnomes in build and stature. “I can change! I’m a versatile kinda guy! For you, baby, I can be anything.”

“Yeah, boss, give ‘im a chance!” called one of the others. “Just look how cute he is!”

The male upon whom Natchua was working grinned ingratiatingly, displaying a double row of unevenly jagged shark-like teeth.

“Sorry, no dice,” she said dispassionately, finishing the last lines of the banishing circle and adding a languid flick of her wrist. The central circle in which the hobgoblin stood was consumed by a momentary column of white fire, and then the whole thing was gone, demon and all.

“Awwww,” complained both the remaining two in unison.

“They…speak Tanglish,” Sherwin marveled. “Huh, usually only the smarter demons know mortal languages before summoning. Based on my reading, hob—I mean, horogki are considered basically vermin.”

“Hey, buddy, we can hear you talkin’, ya know,” huffed one of the two remaining demons.

“Genetic memory,” Natchua explained, already inscribing another summoning circle. “I am summoning specifically from a bloodline with prized engineering skills. The Tanglish is a nice bonus, one I wasn’t actually expecting.”

“Engineering skills,” he said, scowling. “I see. Would I be right in guessing that answers my question as to why you are summoning horogki?”

“Sherwin, this place is falling apart.”

“That is how I like it,” he said testily. “It ensures my privacy, which I should think you would particularly want while you’re staying here! You can’t just go fixing up a man’s ancestral home, Natchua.”

“I’m collecting three or four of them at most,” she said, then hesitated. “In fact, on reflection, just three. Believe me, I don’t intent to rebuild the whole place—that front entry hall that Scorn and Vadrieny smashed is probably going to have to stay that way. But honestly, Sherwin, aside from the little nest you’ve built in the kitchen, there’s nowhere in this manor that isn’t, at best, uncomfortably rugged. Most of it is actually dangerous. Horogki from a mechanically-inclined lineage are a better prospect than hiring contractors, in our particular situation.”

“Oooh!” One of the remaining horogki pressed herself forward against the barrier of her binding circle, not seeming to mind the way it sparked all over her. “That sounds like a challenge. Lemme at ‘er, boss!”

“Well, I suppose,” Sherwin muttered grudgingly. “What was wrong with that fellow, then?”

“He was male.”

“Uh…” He took a step backward, eyeing her warily. “Is this a drow thing, or…?”

“It’s the reason summoning them to this plane is so hazardous that even the Black Wreath won’t do it,” she said with a wry smile. “Two month gestation, four years to physical maturity, and genetic memory that ensures they’re born with a working knowledge of life, and a famously…excitable nature. At the rate they breed, horogki can overrun a kingdom in two decades. Hell is so dangerous that they die there at a phenomenal rate; on this plane, almost nothing can check their population except a deliberate and vigorous culling. They’ve been the cause of more Avenist crusades than Vanislaads. So, to ward off that particular problem, I am summoning only one sex.”

“You are no fun,” complained the other horogki. “You’re the living opposite of fun!”

“Get used to it,” Natchua said without sympathy.

“And, uh…any particular reason why females?” Sherwin asked.

“…huh.” She actually hesitated in her work for a second before continuing to scribe the summoning circle. “That is a drow thing, I suppose. Just the bias of my upbringing coming through. It shouldn’t make a difference which sex we use, practically speaking.”

“Ah, that’s a relief,” Sherwin said, grinning. “Y’know, often when a warlock goes out of their way to summon exclusively female demons, it’s because they have…intentions.”

She stopped again, this time turning to give him a long look over her shoulder. “Really, Sherwin?” Natchua turned back and made a show of eyeing the two hobgoblins over speculatively; one tilted her head in confusion while the other grinned and struck a pose. “Are you already bored with Melaxyna? Well, if they don’t mind, I guess I don’t.”

He flushed bright pink. “Now, that’s not what I—”

“I can’t say I would recommend it, though,” she added, resuming work on the circle. “We’re talking about creatures that have about four times a human’s upper body strength, teeth that can dent steel, and a notable lack of impulse control even when not in the throes of…anything that tends to lower the inhibitions. I didn’t take you for such a thrill-seeker.”

“I did not intend…” Sherwin broke off and cleared his throat, his face now fully red. “Uh, never mind that. What went wrong with your summons, then? I assume you didn’t intend to get a male that time.”

“Nothing went wrong, I expected to have to banish a few in the process; this is by nature a coin toss. I would expect you of all people to know that the only summoning spell with a gendered component is for Vanislaads. And really, even that one is only encoding information in the spell that tells them what kind of form to take to best beguile their prospective summoner.”

He blinked. “Wait, what? They’re male and female, aren’t they?”

“They’re shapeshifters, Sherwin,” she said, smirking. “With a noted tendency toward gender fluidity. It’s not known whether that results from the transformation process or Prince Vanislaas prefers to choose souls with that characteristic, but there it is.”

Sherwin blinked again, twice, and tilted his head in puzzlement. “Gender…fluidity? What does that mean?”

“Exactly what it sounds like,” she drawled. “It’s a surprisingly functional trait, in the case of Vanislaads. More than one has slipped the net because their pursuers failed to connect the incubus sighted in the next province over with the succubus they were chasing. It takes a nuanced understanding of stealth to properly leverage that, you know. What people don’t think to look for is just as invisible as what they literally cannot see.”

Sherwin swallowed heavily, his face now pale beneath its coat of stubble. “Um. Does that mean… That is, do you happen to know if Melaxyna…”

Natchua shrugged. “Does it really make a difference, for your purposes? You could ask her, if you’re awfully curious. I wouldn’t, personally. The children of Vanislaas are able to use that particular trait to their advantage because people don’t think about it. Might not be healthy to let one Vanislaad know you’ve been thinking along lines they would all rather you didn’t.”

“Hang on, now, you said you had her under control!”

She turned again to look at him.

“I mean…you know what I meant,” he exclaimed. “In the sense and to the extent that any succubus is ever under control.”

“Melaxyna won’t harm you, or anyone here,” Natchua assured him, turning back to her work. “But she won’t be here forever. Our contract prohibits her from setting anyone else after me or my allies once she’s dismissed, either. I can’t say for certain whether Vanislaad business qualifies under that protection if she decides a given warlock knows too much. They’re not very cooperative creatures as a rule, but…one never knows.”

“Omnu’s balls, you’re a troublesome houseguest,” he grumbled.

Natchua glanced back at him again, grinning. “Be honest, Sherwin. Am I really one whit more troublesome than you fully expected?”

He had to hesitate before answering that one, but then did so with a reluctant grin. “Okay, fair point.”

“So here’s where—hang on. What devilry are you up to this time, Natchua?” Jonathan Arquin demanded, stepping into the room and scowling at the two imprisoned hobgoblins.

“Hey there, cutie!” one called, waving exuberantly.

“It may not look it at first glance,” Sherwin said, “but apparently this is the first step in fixing this place up a little. How’re you settling in, Mr., uh…”

“Arquin,” he said, finally tearing his suspicious stare from the demons to his host. “Jonathan Arquin. It’s quite the, ah, charming home you have, Lord Leduc. I can tell it has a lot of historical value.”

“You can be frank with me, Mr. Arquin, I’m hard to offend,” Sherwin said with a rueful chuckle. “It’s a dump. Honestly, I like it that way. But then, I never expected to have company for any length of time, so…I suppose some repair is in order. Wouldn’t do for somebody to fall through the floor.”

“Okay, I’m getting really curious to poke around this place,” said one of the horogki.

“House Leduc were a rather infamous clan of warlocks, for a long time before being reduced to just Sherwin, here,” said Natchua. “This manor hid secrets of the most dangerous nature before falling into such disrepair that it may be unsafe to walk through. I’d advise against poking around, Jonathan.”

“Curiouser and curiouser!” chimed the second horogki.

“I was looking for you two, not poking around, and Melaxyna told me exactly where to look. You’ve got another guest, Lord Leduc. Someone who is asking specifically for you and Natchua.”

Natchua broke off her scribing and whirled to stare at him. “What? Me? By name?”

“Not by name, no,” Jonathan shook his head. “The lady did ask for the drow warlock, though. That’s a little too on the nose to be a coincidence.”

She turned a scowl on Sherwin. “Nobody outside this house should have the faintest clue where I am, Sherwin, unless you told someone!”

“Come on, Natchua,” he protested. “I literally don’t talk to people. You lot are the first company I’ve had in years. Even my supply deliveries are just left in the stableyard!”

“Well, my shadow-jumps are too good to be tracked, I can guarantee that. The only way anybody would have even spotted us coming in is if… Actually, I can’t even think of a way! Can you imagine how someone would have been monitoring your grounds through means beyond the current magical state of the art?”

“Oh, ssshhhhiit,” he groaned, suddenly clapping a hand over his eyes. “…all right, I know what this is. Come on, we’d better go face the music. And be nice, Natchua. This isn’t gonna be a situation for slinging power around.”

“Most situations aren’t,” Jonathan grunted. Natchua just swept past him, following Sherwin out into the hall and up the stone stairs to the kitchen.

“So, I guess we’ll just wait here then, shall we?” called one of the imprisoned hobgoblins as the three of them departed.

In the kitchen above were two unfamiliar women, one of whom was recognizable on second glance as Melaxyna, minus the wings and tail and with her unnatural coloration swapped out for a stereotypical Tiraan palette. She was sitting on the edge of Sherwin’s rumpled bed with her hair disheveled and a blanket strategically draped over just enough of herself to make it clear she had nothing else on, as though to make a deliberate statement of what she had been doing for the last couple of hours.

The other was tall, young, and as pretty as Melaxyna, a local fair-haired Stalweiss woman clad in a crimson evening gown with a high collar. It made her look aggressively out of place in the converted kitchen apartment, with its stereotypical bachelor mess strewn over every surface. She had taken up a position in the center of the floor, as far as possible from anything which might touch her dress.

“Lord Sherwin,” the new arrival said with a diplomatic smile that did not touch her eyes, turning toward the door as the three of them filed in. “Felicitations; I see you have finally acquired a succubus. Who is not secured in that cage you so laboriously constructed. Do you require a lecture on the unspeakable danger this creature poses to the entire city?”

“Sherwin, honey,” Melaxyna cooed, angling her body toward him and letting the blanket slip a few calculated inches, “who is this person, and may I please kill her?”

“No!” he shouted, waving his hands. “Do not! Any of you, trust me, killing her is not on the table. Best case scenario you’ll end up looking foolish; if you actually managed to harm her we’d all be in deep shit. Now what the hell do you want, Ruby? Or actually, I guess I should ask what the hand up your butt wants, since we both know you haven’t got a mind of your own.”

Ruby finished giving Natchua a long, thorough visual inspection before turning to him with another meaningless smile. “This is some extremely interesting company you are suddenly keeping, Lord Sherwin. Of course, my Lady would under ordinary circumstances not dream of meddling in your business to even the slightest degree. All this begins to look ominous, however. Need I explain why this kind of activity is of immediate concern to the governor of this province?”

“Governor?” Jonathan’s eyebrows shot upward. “This is starting to sound a whole lot less discreet than you described it, Natchua.”

The drow heaved a sigh. “Oh. The governor. Trust me, Jonathan, she appreciates the value of discretion better than anybody.”

“You can assure Malivette that nothing happening here will spill beyond the walls of Manor Leduc,” Sherwin said testily. “Which makes it by definition none of her damn business. Now, if that is all…”

“You can assure her of that yourself, m’lord,” Ruby replied smoothly. “The Lady Dufresne has sent a carriage to convey you and your very fascinating new houseguests to her residence for a polite conversation. She has instructed me to emphasize that her intentions toward you are as always nothing less than friendly, in the spirit of the long detente which has reigned between your two great Houses, and also that this is not a request.”


Their guides had kept them moving well after the customary time for a lunch break, smiling politely but refusing to relent even despite Ruda and Gabriel’s complaints. The reason became clear in the early afternoon when the party reached their designated stopping place, which proved well worth both the wait and the hike.

Just off the winding mountain trail was a grotto where a waterfall plummeted in a series of steps from a high-up spring into a wide pool below, casting the entire tiny stone valley in a cooling mist. The group had broken for a belated meal, and then tarried to rest and rejuvenate themselves.

There wasn’t room in the grotto for anybody to get properly lost, and so they had each wandered to various corners to pass the time without getting out of sight of each other. Their two guides from the Order of the Light had so far been diffident to the point of standoffish, but Toby had finally occupied them both in conversation at the edge of the pool, along with the two Legionnaires. Gabriel and Juniper were engrossed in teaching Sniff to play fetch up and down the path leading from the main pass to this hidden alcove. Ruda had left her hat, coat, and sword on the ground near their supplies and was now playing a game with Fross which seemed to consist of her trying to ice-skate across the pool in her boots, while the pixie created a path of ice inches in front of her and vanished it immediately behind. Needless to say, she was utterly drenched, and laughing so exuberantly it was amazing she hadn’t managed to drown herself.

Trissiny finished climbing the long, winding path up the side of the grotto to one of the tiers of the waterfall, where a smaller pool lay against the cliff wall, some twenty feet up and with a perfect view of the rest of the valley and their relaxing classmates. Teal and Shaeine already sat on the rocks at the edge, trousers and robes respectively rolled up and with their shoes on the rock beside them, dangling their feet in the water while F’thaan splashed ecstatically around their legs, yipping and trying to chase puffs of spray.

“I’m not intruding, am I?” Trissiny asked, having to raise her voice a little due to the sound of the falls.

“Not at all,” Teal called back, waving. “Please, join us.”

She took a careful seat a few feet distant, perching her booted feet on the rim of the pool and resting her folded arms across her knees. Below, Principia glanced up at them and raised one hand in a perfunctory wave before quickly returning her attention to her own conversation. What with the roar of falling water, this was the first time all morning any of them had been within sight of the elf but not the range of her sharp hearing.

“Do you know anything about the Eserite doctrines of revenge?” Trissiny asked aloud.

“No, but I confess I am rather curious,” Shaeine replied. “My sister Nahil has offered some intriguing commentary about Eserites. The Guild’s codes seem quite opaque to outsiders.”

“Very little of it is actually secret,” said Trissiny, lifting one shoulder in half a shrug, “we just don’t talk much with outsiders about Guild business. But revenge… By Eserite lore, there are three criteria a situation has to meet before you should pursue vengeance upon someone: it has to be satisfying, strategic, and safe.”

“Oh?” Shaine smiled faintly, turning her face toward Trissiny. “How intriguing. In fact, it begins to sound similar to Narisian philosophy. Would you elaborate?”

“Revenge,” Trissiny said, gazing distantly at the scene below them, “is only satisfying if the target knows what is happening to them, at whose instigation, and why. Anonymous acts of retaliation can be amusing, but they’re just…not the same. Not really worth the effort, usually. That’s the part that makes it tricky to line up the other two requirements. For it to be strategic, it means there has to be a functional purpose in attacking someone. In the Guild’s case, that usually means a show of force that will dissuade them from causing further trouble. If you don’t arrange the situation carefully and make sure your act is the final one, all you’ll do is kick off an escalating cycle of retaliation. Which plays into the criterion of safe. In fact, I personally always thought it should just be folded into the second one. Basically, don’t seek revenge on anyone if they’re in a position to do it right back at you afterward. So, given how tricky it is to align all those criteria, Eserites—that is, good Eserites who keep to the codes—very rarely end up seeking personal revenge.”

Shaeine nodded slowly, still wearing that faint smile. “I see. We can address the subtext whenever you are ready, Trissiny. It’s not uncomfortable for me.”

Trissiny sighed, glancing up at her and then looking back down at the others. “The way you keep giving Principia a cold shoulder when she tries to apologize to you is honestly fine, Shaeine. That’s the least of what she has coming, and she knows it. Using your energy shields to trip or jostle her every time…might be less so. Whatever else she may be, Principia Locke is Eserite right down to her core. That means she knows when she’s in the wrong, and won’t begrudge you getting a little of your own back. If you push it to the point where she decides you’re the one being abusive, though, you may be courting more trouble than you comprehend. Don’t underestimate her.”

Shaeine studied her in silence for a moment, then turned her head to look at Teal.

“It’s Trissiny, loveling,” Teal said softly, barely audible through the sound of falling water. “We should be open with her.”

The drow closed her eyes and leaned over for a moment, briefly resting the crown of her forehead against Teal’s jaw, then turned back to Trissiny with a smile a few degrees warmer.

“Trissiny, I realize you have a complicated history with that woman, and less attachment to her than to the one who raised you. But these facts remain: she is your mother, you are my friend, and my culture is what it is. She would have to have done far worse to me than the, I admit, relatively minor offense she committed before I would willingly do her serious harm. Rest assured, I have no intention of acting toward her in a way that could reasonably be described as abusive.”

Trissiny nodded, turning an answering smile on her. “Good, I’m glad to hear that. I guess… I don’t really understand, then. I don’t mean any offense, Shaeine, but…this seems petty to me. And you’re one of the least petty people I’ve ever known. That tells me there’s something going on that I’m missing.”

“Oh, I can be a little petty,” Shaeine replied, now with an open if reserved grin. “From time to time. But you’re right, it is not quite so simple as that. Well, let me put it this way. In Tar’naris, we have a saying: the best revenge is to place someone in your power.”

Trissiny frowned thoughtfully. “Then that really sounds like you may be asking for trouble.”

“I’m hardly going to try to enslave her, either,” said Shaeine. “But it’s just as you said, Trissiny: the situation matters. Principia has been nakedly angling to get closer to you as long as we have known her, and I don’t expect that has changed. Now, furthermore, she answers to your High Commander and is on some mission which, I surmise, involves getting on the good side of at least Tellwyrn and possibly all of us. In short, there is no situation in which it will be safe or strategic for her to retaliate against me. The moment she commits to such a feud, a huge swath of everything she wants will go up in smoke.”

“So you think you can mess with her with impunity?” Trissiny said warily. “Shaeine…”

“It’s not that,” Teal assured her. “Look, Triss, as mad as we both were at the time, that was two years ago. It was all remedied in minutes, and everybody is over it. There are no grudges being held here.”

“What there is,” Shaeine added, “is a clever, well-connected, potentially very useful person to know who now finds herself needing to worm her way back into my good graces. I have no intention of harming Principia in the least; I have no specific plans for her, either. What I do know is that my mother would be severely disappointed in me if I squandered an opportunity to leverage the debt of honor she owes House Awarrion for the sake of getting some trifling personal revenge. In short, my little pranks are intended simply to make it clear to Principia that she is not in favor with me.” A mild, self-satisfied smile settled over her features and she leaned back slightly, stretching out her legs and wiggling her toes above the surface of the water. “And then…we will see what she is willing to do to get there. And if I allow myself to enjoy the process just a little, well, the smirking polecat did creep into our home and drug us both.”

“So that’s your game,” Trissiny mused after a thoughtful pause, frowning faintly at the scene below them. Principia was still not looking in their direction.

“Trissiny.” Shaeine turned to her, straightening up and fully sobering her expression. “I meant what I said. This is a matter of seizing an opportunity; it’s not a vengeance I feel a particular need to pursue, nor does my House specifically want anything from Locke. More immediately, I care very much about your feelings, and what you think of me. If you request it, I will instantly drop the entire thing and make no further reference to it. As far as my own feelings go, I have forgiven her long since. A grudge is a heavy thing to carry, and seldom worth the labor.”

“No,” Trissiny said pensively, pausing to chew on her lower lip for a moment. “No, now that I understand what you’re doing… I have no objection to any of this. Sounds like you actually do know what you’re about, and I see no harm in it. With that said, now, I do have a request.”

“Name it.”

Trissiny turned to face her with a sudden grin. “I wanna play, too.”

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15 – 4

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“I suppose it is possible,” Crystal said, her metal footfalls echoing on the path in the early morning quiet. The two of them walked through a rare bank of fog as a passing cloud drifted into the mountaintop, Tellwyrn’s passage as silent as any elf’s. The golem’s new body was actually lighter than her old, it metallic parts being much leaner and in fact designed after a human skeleton, padded on the limbs with lightweight material to fill out the suit she wore. The only shoes which had fit over her spring-loaded metal feet, however, were clumsy galoshes which she found awkward to wear, and so she went barefoot, hence the distinctive metallic sound of her gait. Though Crystal had taken to wearing gloves to conceal her skeletal-looking hands, as their appearance unnerved some of the new students, she once again had a simple steel mask for a face. She claimed it suited her.

“You were linked into that thing as closely as can be,” Tellwyrn prompted. “Is that really all you can tell me? It’s possible?”

“It really is, Professor, I’m sorry. The Crawl’s systems may have been as orderly as dwarven clockwork when they were first designed, but I think that was actually well before the Elder War. Millennia of being used by resident monsters and passing adventurers, adapting and repairing and growing, have made it something that seems very much organic in structure. I could isolate specific pieces of data to examine, but their organizational system made little sense, and the results of trying to perceive the overall whole were frustratingly vague. I can tell you that I don’t recall seeing any structures such as the students described to you, but I also could not swear that the functions of such a device might not have been integrated into the Crawl’s own ancient machinery, somehow. Everything down there is a ten-thousand-year hodgepodge.”

“It’s probably nothing about which we need worry,” Tellwyrn murmured, frowning into the fog around them. “It hasn’t caused any problems in fifty years and with Rowe gone, the Visage is no longer attracting critters from other realities… But these gates would account for that effect so very well, I don’t want to just ignore the possibility.”

“I didn’t hear the paladins’ report, obviously, but the way you described it, Professor, it sounded like Vesk had them all locked away except for the one lost under Puna Dara.”

“I never assume any god has full control over anything they’re supposed to, especially that one. Well, with Elder God crap in general the best policy is usually not to poke at it, so the last thing I want is to start tearing apart the Crawl to look for a putative dimensional gate that only might be down there. Still, I feel a little investigation is warranted. Morning, Andrew.”

“G’morning, Professor, Crystal!” Finchley said as the two of them passed through the inner security gate, lifting a steaming cup. A single fairy lamp glowed in the gatehouse office, illuminating the window through which he greeted them. “The kids have all gone through already. We’ve got a pot brewed if you wanna stop in on your way back. Some jasmine blend from Shengdu, real fancy stuff! Fedora either stole it or won it in a poker game, he was unclear.”

“I may take you up on that,” she said with a smile. “Work first, though.”

“As always. Watch your step going down the mountain, it’s pea soup out there.”

“I am an elf, you twit.”

“Wasn’t talking to you, Professor,” he grinned, unoffended.

“Thank you, Finchley, I will be careful,” Crystal promised, and they proceeded down through the new research campus. At that hour, it was even quieter than the old campus; students on the upper levels were already heading off to classes, but the visiting brains pursuing research projects tended to set more indulgent hours for themselves.

“When everyone’s settled into the new semester and you have time, Crystal, I’d like you to have another look, if you’re willing. With Alaric and Admestus along for safety’s sake, of course.”

“I certainly am, Professor, if you feel it is important. I may have better luck, knowing a specific thing for which to look, but I stress that I’m reluctant to guarantee any results.”

“Of course, this is just due diligence. As I said, it’s unlikely to be a problem if it hasn’t become one before now, but considering the mess that could have resulted from Rowe’s tampering if he wasn’t stopped… You’re certain he’s no longer an issue?”

“No child of Vanislaas is ever not an issue, Professor. They can’t be eliminated, just inconvenienced. I feel comfortable asserting he will have a harder time getting out of where I put him than he ever did escaping from Hell. If Rowe becomes a problem again, it will be for future generations.”

“I’ll take it,” Tellwyrn said with a smile. “All right, thanks for keeping me company; I see my next appointment up ahead. You’d better get the library opened.”

“Of course. Have a good morning, Professor. Let me know when you want me to investigate the Crawl again.”

“Will do. Take care.”

Crystal turned to head back up the path into the main campus, while Tellwyrn continued on down the wide avenue through the terraces of the research complex. In the morning quiet, she could already hear the conversation going on at the lower gate of the University’s expanded property.

“You did not call her a bitch!”

“Bet your sweet bippy I did. Right in front of my captain, the enforcers and the Huntsmen.”

“Bullshit, I don’t believe you. I used to hang out with the Fourth Legion when they were stationed where I grew up and a soldier who pulled that would’ve had the wrath of Avei come raining down on her.”

“Yeah, I think the LT was cursed by a fairy to never have to suffer the consequences of the crap she does.”

“Good to see everyone’s getting along,” Tellwyrn said, coming to a stop in the shadow of the outer gate, where three people in uniform were standing around apparently swapping stories.

“Hey, Professor!” Rook said cheerfully, rendering a singularly half-assed salute. “Morning, you missed the juniors by a few minutes.”

“How nice, they’ve developed the skill of showing up on time, finally,” she said, turning to the two Legionnaires. “That must have been an awkward meeting, Locke. Did you already spill the beans?”

“Oh, we only just got here a minute or two before you, Professor,” Principia replied, her tone suddenly far more polite than the one she’d used to josh around with Rook. Merry stood off to the side, apparently willing herself to be invisible. “Haven’t encountered the kids yet.”

“What amazingly precise timing you have,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “As always. All right, come along, I fear for the village if those little goons are left unattended in it for too long. See you later, Tom, try not to burn the place down.”

“The question is when I’m gonna burn the place down,” Rook said with a broad grin as she passed through the gates, Principia and Merry falling into step behind her. “You want in on the pool? I’m down for the week before graduation! If it involves a talking donkey and not Rafe’s alchemy lab I stand to really clean up.”

“He’s my favorite,” Tellwyrn commented while Rook and the gate receded into the distance behind them.

Principia cleared her throat. “I appreciate how gracious you’re being about all this, Arachne. I promise you won’t have cause to regret—”

“Cut that out,” the Professor growled.

“Pardon?”

“Being all polite and diplomatic, as if you were some kind of grown-up professional. I’ve known you too long, Prin. It’s creepy.”

“People do change, Arachne.”

“People can change. They usually don’t.”

“Then why take the risk?”

Tellwyrn turned her head to give the other elf a very wide grin, then faced forward again and continued walking in silence.

“Now that was a predatory look,” Merry mumbled. “I can’t decide if she wants to eat you or screw you.”

“Read the room, Lang. I think this situation calls for an awkward silence, not banter.”

“Oh, good. I’m great at those.”

To anyone familiar with the town of Last Rock over the last few decades, the view as one descended the mountain into its streets displayed its recent, rapid changes to great effect. The village was larger, with new construction spreading in all directions except up the mountainside itself, and now had even crossed the Rail line in a series of three sturdy footbridges and, a short distance to the south of the town proper, the beginnings of what would be a vehicle-friendly bridge crossing over the Rail. It also had new landmarks, with the flat but distinctive spread of the Vidian temple to the north and the white marble dome and columns of the Silver Mission in the opposite direction near the old road into town from Calderaas, two new windmills on the western edge beyond the Rail line, a new water tower and grain silo, and the jagged framework of what would be a second telescroll tower when its crystal orb was installed.

The three of them walked in silence, gazing out at the spread of Last Rock as they passed beneath the level of the cloud cover, and soon were stepping into its streets. It was sleepy as any rural town at this hour, but a few early risers exchanged polite greetings with Tellwyrn and gave the Legionnaires curious looks, often doing double-takes when they recognized Principia. She was smiling smugly at the trail of staring people they left behind by the time the group had reached their destination: the Rail platform.

New growth was evident here, too. Benches and street lamps had been added around the perimeter of the platform itself, the ticket stand was in the midst of a significant expansion into a proper office, and a newsstand selling papers from Tiraas and Calderaas had been erected at the edge of the street. The hot new rumor around town was that the Surveyor Corps was considering adding Last Rock to the regular travel rotation, instead of requiring caravans there to be specially commissioned.

The new junior class was taking advantage of the recently-installed benches. Teal and Shaeine were seated at one end, leaning against each other, while Juniper stretched out on the rest of their seat; the bench terminated against a lamp post, with another on its other side, where Gabriel sat straddling the wooden seat with his back against the pole, reading a comic. Fross was hovering around the top of the new street light, apparently inspecting the fairy lamp, while Toby and Trissiny stood talking quietly a few feet distant. Ruda paced up and down the edge of the platform, humming the tune of “I’d Hit Sally” under her breath. The animals played under the watchful eyes of Shaeine and Teal, F’thaan gamboling around the end of their bench while Sniff had retreated a few yards to study the young hellhound intently, his head twisting this way and that.

“Now, that’s what I like to see!” Tellwyrn said brightly, striding onto the platform with her escort trailing along behind. “Everybody in place, fully dressed, and mostly conscious, with no need for me to teleport anyone.”

“Don’t lie, you love teleporting people,” Ruda snorted.

“What is that doing here?” Shaiene demanded in a frigid tone.

“I see you all remember Lieutenant Locke,” Tellwyrn said. “One thing at a time, Mrs. Awarrion. Juniper, sit up; I require that my students at least pretend to be awake when I am addressing them. Now! I assume you’ve been clued in by your fellow students about the traditional junior class excursion, but for the sake of thoroughness and because many of your classmates are hysterical liars, I will summarize. You are going to a site in the Wyrnrange known in this era as the Desolate Gardens. This is a location of immense historical significance, currently administered by the Order of the Light, who will be your hosts. It is the location where the Third Hellwar started and ended, the site of the single largest hellgate ever created, which was the source of the demon invasion and the site of the last battle of the war. Now it is a sanctified place of healing, meditation, and retreat.”

“How sanctified, exactly?” Juniper asked. “I assume you wouldn’t send us to a place that would be inherently dangerous for Fross and me…”

“Thank you for crediting me with extremely basic sense, Juniper. Yes, the Desolate Gardens is mostly fine for you. There are powerfully divine-blessed locations on the site, some old chapels and shrines, but also a few spots of fae significance. The Order of the Light, despite its name, isn’t a strictly divine-wielding institution. They have always made heavy use of mages and witches, and even fairy allies.”

“What are we to do there, Professor?” Toby asked.

“This is a free-form exercise, rather like your Golden Sea trips. Rather than survival, however, the point of this trip is to test your mental and emotional balance.”

“How so?” Trissiny demanded.

Tellwyrn smiled vaguely. “Now, now. If I explain everything ahead of time, there is virtually no point in going. The Desolate Gardens are a place where people tend to find…what they need. With you lot, the results should be very interesting indeed. As a side note, it is also the place where Vadrieny and I came closest to encountering one another prior to her enrollment here. We were both present at that last battle, though we did not personally interact. I tell you this,” she added directly to Teal in a more serious tone, “simply to forewarn. I know she has had unexpected memories pop up before, and this is the first time I’m sending you to a place where that’s specifically likely to happen. At this point, Vadrieny has earned trust, and I am not worried. I just don’t want that to sneak up on you.”

“We both appreciate that, Professor,” Teal replied.

“So,” said Gabriel, glancing around the quiet platform, “does this mean you’re going to be our guardian on this trip, Professor?”

Tellwyrn sighed softly and adjusted her glasses. “Right. This is, as I said, a free-form exercise. Usually students are accompanied by one of the dorm guardians rather than a Professor, as the objective is not to pursue academic goals. Your attendant is along more as insurance than leadership, there simply to watch over you in case of some severe injury or other unforseeable disaster. None of which have ever happened on this particular field trip, but as you know my rule about letting students off-campus unattended is inviolable. And besides, if there were going to be an unforseeable disaster it’d be you little bastards who brought it on.”

“Man, you run off and charge one hellgate and everybody gets a fuckin’ attitude,” Ruda snorted.

“I’m sure I needn’t explain all the changes affecting our school, so I won’t,” Tellwyrn continued, “except to say that the research campus is not the end of it by far. For most of its history the University has stood effectively apart from the world, but that’s not going to work for much longer. Rather than lurk on our mountaintop and wait for the world to overtake us, I am taking steps to reach out and be the initiator, or at least active participant, in forging new connections. In the last two years I have been actively in contact with the Imperial government, and since the construction of the research facilities we have made formal academic exchanges with several other universities in the Tiraan Empire, the Five Kingdoms, Syralon, and most recently in the Republic of Sheng-La. Point is, from here on out, we are going to be less and less isolated out here. Students at ULR will have ever more interaction with the wider world. Given the way the world is shaping up and what our students need, I think this will be all to the good.”

“Hang on, now,” said Ruda, looking at Principia. “You can’t be leading up to…”

“Yes, in fact,” Tellwyrn replied flatly. “This trip will be an experiment toward that ongoing goal. It will mark the first University excursion overseen by non-University personnel. On your visit to the Desolate Gardens, your assigned chaperones will be Lieutenant Locke and Corporal Lang of the Third Silver Legion.”

All the students immediately began talking at once, most loudly. The exceptions were Ruda, who was laughing so hard she had to slump against the lamp post to brace herself, and uncharacteristically Gabriel, who simply studied Locke in silence.

Tellwyrn let this go on for thirty seconds, and then raised one finger. A thin, piercing whine rose in the air, causing the general furor of complaints to dissolve into a few pained shouts.

“What the fuck?!” Ruda roared the second it cut off. “Naphthene’s tits, you sadistic old bag, I liked it better when you just blew shit up and made loud noises!”

“Dunno, that was a pretty loud noise,” Toby said, still twisting a fingertip in his ear and grimacing.

“It’s year three now, and incredibly, I still have to say this,” Tellwyrn sighed. “Think. Use those brains instead of just reacting. I know your history with Locke; she’s guilty of offenses against you, in particular, for which I have been known to fling people bodily off my mountain. And now I’m placing her nominally in charge of you, out from under my watchful eye. Rather than flying off the handle, read between the lines and see if you can figure out what this means. Anyone?”

“It means,” Gabriel said quietly, still staring at Principia, “you literally don’t care if we kill her.”

In the stillness, Trissiny and Shaeine both shifted their heads in unison to look at him, then at Principia, and finally back at Tellwyrn. Locke herself wore a vague smile which had not faltered during the whole conversation; Merry, now, began edging away from her.

Tellwyrn pointed at Gabriel. “You know, Arquin, I have come to regard you as one of my biggest successes. Not that you’re the brightest star in the firmament by any means, but you are ten times the man you were when you arrived here, and if there’s one thing I like to see in my students, it’s self-improvement. As is becoming a pattern with you, you’ve hit the nail on the head.”

“Interesting,” Shaeine enunciated tonelessly. At that, Principia’s smile finally slipped.

“In the years to come,” said Tellwyrn, “things like this are going to become more and more frequent. I foresee a variety of scenarios in which students at this very exclusive University will be placed temporarily under the guidance of people from other institutions. My intention is to get a feel for how this will work, iron out the kinks, and suss out ahead of time any unexpected problems that may arise. This particular assignment is going to be a test case, and I have chosen it specifically because of the lack of risk involved.”

She began pacing slowly up and down the platform while speaking, hands folded behind her. “Locke came here to reach out on behalf of High Commander Rouvad, who is looking to ingratiate the Sisterhood with my school in pursuit of a new goal of hers, not dissimilar from my own. This makes a perfect low-stakes test case because the Sisterhood has nothing I want. If you kids manage to screw this up beyond all hope of redemption…” She shrugged. “Oh, well.

“The risk is further minimized if I make your class the lab rats in this exercise, for two reasons: one, hardly anything in the world is a severe physical danger to you, so I worry less about your actual safety than most other students. And two, despite some early hiccups, you have grown to be a reliable group. I trust you not to cause trouble that didn’t need to be caused. Those of you who are smirking had better cease immediately. I don’t do flattery and the second I see a need I can give a ten-minute off-the-cuff speech on the crippling character flaws of each and every one of you.”

She stopped speaking and pace, sweeping a gimlet eye across the whole group, under which there was total silence except for a tiny growl from F’thaan.

“And finally,” Tellwyrn continued at last, “there is, as we have mentioned, the curious case of Principia Locke. In a hypothetical worst-case scenario, Rouvad will have to make offended noises if one of her soldiers gets mangled, but in this case they will be less than emphatic. You can always tell where Prin has been because that’s where you’ll find people pissed off at her. I expect you to comport yourselves properly as representatives of this University and not inflict unnecessary trouble upon your chaperones, but let’s face it: if this whole thing ends with Principia’s head rolling into a ditch, nobody’s going to be especially cheesed off at me about it. I would be disappointed at the lack of respect shown to Trissiny’s feelings, should that occur, but even she would get over it pretty quickly. Any disagreement on that?”

This time, she turned to include Locke in her inquisitive stare. Nobody raised an objection, though Trissiny frowned, Merry and Ruda grinned, and Principia and Shaeine had both gone eerily expressionless.

“Very good, then,” Tellwyrn went on briskly. “Locke has your full travel itinerary, though it’s not too involved. You will be going by Rail to the town of Hollowfield; it’s a caravan ride of only a few minutes that’ll put you about equidistant between Mathenon and Stavulheim. There you will be met by representatives of the Order of the Light, who will conduct you on a roughly two-day trip overland through the mountain roads to the Desolate Gardens. As is both traditional and part of the exercise, your time of departure will not be known to you. Locke knows the schedule. As does Lang, who seems a fairly inoffensive person, so if you little buggers can’t behave, at least try to keep one of them alive.”

“Hey, question,” said Ruda, raising her hand. “How come you can’t just teleport us right to the place, like you did in Puna Dara?

“Because too much convenience is not good for you,” Tellwyrn said placidly. “Especially since that incident required me to intervene before you lot could run off without me, and there are consequences for putting me out.”

“Well, I think it sounds like fun!” Fross chimed. “I’ve never gone on a journey into the mountains before! I always felt like we missed out on that in Veilgrad.”

“Ah, ah,” Juniper chided, scowling up at her. “No legs, no opinion on the two-day hike.”

“I’ve got legs,” Fross protested. “And I’d like to see you fly everywhere if you think it’s so easy!”

“If the Golden Sea didn’t kill us, this won’t,” Toby said, firmly but with a smile.

“That’s the spirit!” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “All right, you know what you need to. Locke will be able to reach me in the event of an emergency. Keep in mind her position and if she is forced to remind you of University rules I’ll expect you to listen, but aside from that, she is not actually authorized to order you about. She is hundreds of years old, a veteran Eserite, and apparently a surprisingly competent soldier, so in the event of a crisis, I suggest getting her input. By and large, however, you’re under your own guidance.”

“In the event of a crisis,” said Principia, “I’m not going to try to stop this group from racing to the fore. I understand that’s something of a pattern with them.”

“Oh, naturally,” Tellwyrn replied. “Equally naturally I will still hold you fully accountable for whatever befalls them, whether or not you could have stopped it. That’s the job you signed up for.”

“Of course,” Principia replied with a sardonic grimace.

Ruda cracked her knuckles loudly.

“And with that,” said Tellwyrn, grinning wolfishly, “you are officially on your own, kids. Your caravan will be here at the top of the hour. While you wait, know that I’m going to be enjoying a cup of imported jasmine tea in the comfort of the guardhouse. And I’m not even going to have to walk there!”

At the distance she stood from them, even the tiny puff of displaced air caused by her teleportation was inaudible; she was simply, suddenly gone.

“How long do you think it’s gonna be till she forgives us for Puna Dara?” Gabriel asked. “Seems unfair. We didn’t even succeed in running away, that time.”

Ruda cackled. “How long can elves live?”

“That is the question of the day, isn’t it,” Teal said in an innocent tone, not looking in Principia’s direction. Shaeine silently took her hand, interlacing their fingers.

Principia herself put on a broad smile and clapped her gauntleted hands together loudly, stepping forward to the center of the Rail platform. “Well! Here we are, then, campers. Who’s ready to go on an adventure?”

All of them stared back at her in total silence. Except F’thaan, who growled in tiny dislike.

Merry took a circumspect step backward from her commanding officer.

Undeterred by this chilly reception, Principia opened her mouth to speak again.

A wall of silver light flashed into being behind her and swept forward, shoving her bodily past them and off the platform. The shield dissipated at the edge, though by that point it had built up enough speed to launch her all the way over the Rail line itself.

While Gabriel applauded, Ruda shouted criticism of her landing and Toby hopped down to help her up, Trissiny sidled over to the end of the bench where Shaeine and Teal sat and leaned over to murmur to them.

“Please don’t actually kill her, though.”

“Of course, Trissiny,” Shaeine said immediately, nodding deeply to her. “I would never show such disregard for your feelings. Besides, my mother always taught me that homicide is a lesser revenge.” She paused, turning her head to glance over her shoulder at Principia, who had landed lightly and was now reassuring Toby as to her condition. “I have much better ideas.”

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15 – 1

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“You’d be welcome, if you wanna come along,” Toby promised.

“Nah, I need to get a head start on my research project; Yornhaldt and Tellwyrn both signed off on it, but with the clear understanding they expected to see me buckling down to the work.” Raolo grinned and leaned in to kiss Toby’s cheek, squeezing his hand. “Sides, it’s been close to a year since your whole group was together again. You guys go catch up; we’ll have plenty of time.”

“All right. I’ll come by and keep you company while you work tonight,” the paladin replied, unable to keep the grin off his face.

“It’s a date.” Raolo took two steps back, stretching their clasped arms out between them, before finally releasing Toby’s hand and turning to go skipping off back up the path through the center of the mostly-constructed new research campus toward the old gates. Toby was still smiling when he turned back around to face the rest of the newly-minted junior class.

“Aww,” Juniper, Teal, and Fross cooed in unison.

Ruda’s commentary, as usual, was less saccharine. “Has anybody else noticed our social circle is disproportionately queer?”

Trissiny sighed. “Ruda.”

“What? I’m serious! This makes two thirds of the full-blooded humans in our year. The species can’t possibly be this gay; even the elves would outbreed us!”

“Three individuals is not a statistically useful sample size, Ruda,” Fross said severely. “I realize you’re not a mathematics major but I would expect you to know that much.”

“Guys, relax,” Toby interjected, still smiling. “It’s just us here. If anything, I’d be offended if Ruda thought I was too fragile to face the rough side of her tongue.”

“See?” Grinning, Ruda punched him on the shoulder. “Paladin boy gets it!”

“Hey, as long as Ruda can have her fun without fucking stabbing someone, I say leave her to it.”

“You’re just tetchy because you’re the only one who ever gets stabbed, Arquin.”

“Oh, shoot,” Juniper said suddenly, pressing a hand to one of the pouches hanging from her belt. “I forgot to bring my money purse…”

“It’s okay, June, we’ll spot you,” said Trissiny.

“No, that’s all right, this is an opportunity. Sniff!”

Juniper knelt and the dog-sized creature which had been pacing silently alongside her chirped, skittering around in front to meet her gaze. He was covered in feathers and generally bird-shaped, albeit with a long, flat head filled with jagged teeth and a serpentine tail which ended in a colorful spray of plumes. His wings were clearly arms despite the pinions which flared outward from the wrist joint; they had already observed Sniff’s ability to pick up objects in his little clawed fingers. Now the crest of feathers atop his head stood upright in attention.

“Go back to the bedroom,” Juniper instructed slowly and clearly, staring into the creature’s eyes, “and get my money bag. Okay? You understand?”

Sniff made his croaking little chirp again, bobbed his head once, then stepped around her and dashed off back up the path into the campus.

F’thaan growled, taking a few steps after him, but Shaeine snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground by her feet. The little hellhound immediately scampered over to lie down beside her.

“It’s good for him to have tasks,” the dryad said, straightening and watching him go. “Part of where I went wrong with Jack was treating him like a pet. A druid’s familiar is meant to be helpful. I guess now we’ll find out if he knows what my money bag is… If not, I may need to owe somebody for drinks.”

“We’ll spot you, don’t worry,” Teal assured her with a smile.

“Well, since we’re talking about it now,” said Ruda, “what the fuck is that thing?”

“Sniff is not a thing,” Juniper replied, turning a frown on her. “He’s my companion.”

“Okay, point taken, but what is he?”

“He kind of resembles a sylph,” Trissiny mused.

“Sniff is a proto-bird!” Fross chimed. “I assume you found him in the Golden Sea, Juniper? That’s the most common place to find extinct species. You guys remember the smilodon we met on our first expedition? But yeah, I dunno his exact species; this school doesn’t have a lot of material on the subject in the library. You’ve gotta go to Svenheim for a university with an actual department of paleontology. Proto-birds are the general group of species that evolved into modern birds.”

“Yeah, I found Sniff in the Sea,” Juniper said. “Out by the edge of it, but still. I was performing a sunrise ritual Sheyann taught me how to incorporate into shamanic practice, and…there he was. It seemed kinda like fate.”

“Yeah, I didn’t wanna press you or anything,” said Gabriel, patting her shoulder, “but it’s obvious you had a busy summer.”

“I don’t mind talking about it,” Juniper said, smiling at him and unconsciously reaching up to touch the sunburst pendant resting on her upper chest, bound by a golden chain around her neck. Her entire appearance had undergone a change since the spring. In addition to her green hair being now combed back and bound in a single severe braid, the dryad’s customary sundresses had been traded in for dyed garments of traditional wood elven style which both covered a lot more skin and hugged her figure more closely. They had to have been made specially for her, as no elves had a frame as generously curvy as Juniper’s. She was also wearing a heavily laden tool belt rather like Trissiny’s, bristling with pouches of both shamanic reagents and mundane supplies. And, in its own leather holster, an Omnist libram whose cover glittered with the same golden sunburst sigil she now wore around her neck. Another sunburst hung, along with a string of prayer beads, from the tie holding the end of her long braid together. “After…you know, what happened at Puna Dara… Well, it was clear to me I needed some source of calm and focus, like you guys have. I mean, Toby, Trissiny, Shaeine. It may be all different religions but you’re all centered in a way I suddenly realized I was missing. Druidic traditions are great but they don’t exactly provide that. And, well… Themynrite worship seems pretty drow-exclusive, and no offense, Trissiny, but it didn’t seem to me like Avei was offering what I needed.”

“No offense is taken,” Trissiny assured her. “I think that was a good call, Juniper. Avei fills a crucial need, but…” Her eyes caught Gabriel’s, and she smiled. “Everybody does not have the same problem.”

“And so the dryad is an Omnist now,” Ruda chuckled. “Ain’t life a show?”

“I’m proud of you,” Toby said, also patting Juniper’s back. “And not because you picked my religion, Juno, but because you’re working on yourself. I hope you find what you need in Omnu, but remember: if you don’t, you’re allowed to keep looking. It’s a lot more important to me that you be happy than that you follow my own faith.”

“You’re a good friend,” she replied with a smile. “And a good monk.”

They had no sooner resumed their way down the mountain staircase toward Last Rock than Gabriel abruptly slowed. “Heads up. Vestrel says we’ve got company coming.”

“There’s usually some kinda company coming and going, it ain’t like this is a cloistered campus,” Ruda replied. “What’s got Spooky’s feathers in a ruffle?”

“Don’t call her that,” Gabriel said with a long-suffering sigh.

“I see them, too,” Shaeine interjected, and the rest all turned to her in surprise at the wintry undertone in her normally serene voice. Beside her, F’thaan growled, picking up on her mood. “Vestrel is right to be concerned. Trissiny, you should perhaps step to the front.”

It took only moments longer for the pair coming up the mountain to ascend within range of non-elven eyes, Shaeine’s vision being mostly adapted to sunlight after two years on the surface. The bronze Legion armor was evident as soon as the two were in view, and it wasn’t long afterward that at least one of the oncoming Legionnaires was personally identifiable.

“Well, hidey-ho, kids!” Principia Locke called, waving broadly as she and her companion came up the stairs toward them. “Fancy meeting you here!”

“We are supposed to be here,” Trissiny said pointedly. “And just because classes are out for the day does not mean I’m going to drop everything to spend time with you. Have you forgotten your last visit to this University? Because nobody else has.”

“Well, Trissiny, I’m always glad to see you,” Principia said with a grin, coming to a stop in front of them and a few steps down. Beside her, Merry came to attention, saluting. “And I hope we have a chance to catch up while I’m in town. But, and I’m sorry to have to tell you this, the sun does not rise and set on your golden head. We’re here to see Professor Tellwyrn. Legion business.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes slightly. “I don’t think I saw a salute, Lieutenant.”

“You’re out of uniform, General,” Principia replied with unruffled calm.

At that, Trissiny cracked a faint smile of her own. She did have her sword buckled on over a casual leather longcoat, but no other indicators of her rank. “Well, she’s right, as it happens. At ease, Corporal Lang.”

“I’ve developed a policy of not taking risks when Locke starts getting shirty with people who can kill us, ma’am,” Merry said, relaxing a bit.

“I guess we know who’s the brains in this operation, then,” said Gabriel.

“Is there something you’d like to tell me about, Locke?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes,” Principia said with clear emphasis, meeting her eyes directly. “In my personal and professional opinion, you should be fully briefed and involved. But the High Commander’s regard for my opinion runs pretty thin these days, especially after our little game of tag with Syrinx this summer, and until she says otherwise our business remains classified.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured.

Principia cleared her throat and shifted, nodding politely to Shaeine. “Ms. Awarrion, I’m very glad to see you up and well. You weren’t at Puna Dara with the others, so I missed the chance to apologize—”

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but matters are not that simple,” Shaeine interrupted tonelessly. Beside her, Teal stuck her hands in her coat pockets, fixing Principia with an extremely level stare. “I am on this campus in my capacity as a representative of House Awarrion and Tar’naris. If you wish to offer amends for any slights given, you will have to take it up with my mother. Excuse me.”

She turned and resumed walking down the mountainside, Teal following her after giving Principia a last lingering stare. F’thaan growled at the two Legionnaires before trotting off after them. Slowly, the rest of the students began filing past after their classmates, Ruda with a dark chuckle and a wink at Principia.

“…that’s a trap, isn’t it,” Principia mused aloud, half-turned to watch Shaeine’s back retreating down the staircase.

“Yep,” replied Trissiny, the last of the juniors still present. “I suggest you don’t go within a mile of Tar’naris unless you want to spend some time in a spider box. Ashaele is about as forgiving as any drow matriarch. And I am assuredly not going to expend what little political capital I have to rescue you from the consequences of your own nonsense.”

Principia turned back to her, grinning. “Appreciate the concern, kiddo, but that’s one thing I will never ask you to do. Trust me, I got by just fine for centuries without having anybody to watch over me.”

“That’s right, keep calling me funny little pet names,” Trissiny grunted, finally turning to follow the rest of her friends toward the town. “Way to rebuild those bridges, Locke. Have fun getting immolated, which I assume you know is what’s going to happen the instant Tellwyrn finds you on her campus again.”

“Relax, Thorn, you know my tag. I always have a way in!”

“Your funeral.”

“Will you send flowers?” Principia called after her. Trissiny, now several yards down the path, didn’t turn or respond. For a moment, the elf stood watching her go, then turned back to meet her companion’s eyes. “Oh, shut up, Lang.”

“Didn’t say a word,” Merry replied innocently.

“Well, could you think it a little more quietly?”

“Don’t think I can, LT. C’mon, let’s go get you immolated. I don’t wanna miss that.”


She lay awake—normal enough for the late afternoon, though he slept deeply beside her. He was always a deep sleeper, especially after sex. Two months ago she had found it an annoying habit, but had begun to find charm in it. That warned her that it was probably past time to go.

Fortunately, she had what she needed, now.

Natchua turned her head to watch him breathe for a long moment. He lay on his side, facing her, mouth hanging open and making a raspy noise with each breath that wasn’t quite a snore. As always, he had thrown an arm over her waist. In the beginning, it had been to paw sleepily at her breasts while drifting off, but more and more, lately, it seemed he just like to hold her close.

Definitely past time to go. And a layered irony that after all her snooping and needling all summer, the tiny piece of information that had been her whole purpose in coming to Mathenon had slipped from his lips in the last few mumbled words before he faded into sleep. Well, that had been the whole reason she had let this entanglement become so intimate. Information could be effectively sealed away from all scrying by the Church and the Empire and still be carelessly spilled by a man in his lover’s arms; every spy in history understood that basic fact.

She had the name, and he was asleep. There was no reason to still be lying there, except that it was comforting… And yes, that just served to emphasize how necessary it was to get out and put all this behind her before she got in any deeper.

Natchua slipped out from under his arm, freezing when he stirred and shifted. He didn’t wake, though, and she dressed in swift silence, the grace of an elf more than a match for a sleeping human’s senses. That should have been the very end of it.

Still, she hesitated.

On impulse, she stepped back to the bed and leaned over Jonathan, bending to lay a last kiss against his temple. Inches away, however, she paused. Foolish risk; the touch of her lips had a way of making him wake and reach for her. But the thought of just ending it like this, with nothing but a silent disappearance, sent a pang through her.

That was the final warning. Natchua straightened up, backing away from the bed, then turned and slipped in total silence out of Jonathan Arquin’s apartment, and life.

Long past time.


“What are you humming?” Ingvar asked.

“I don’t know!” Aspen said cheerfully, actually dancing a few steps. One of the elven groves they had visited had introduced her to dancing, and already her fondness for it bordered on passion. All it took now was a few bars of music to set her off. “Just going along with the music. It’s pretty!”

“Music?” Ingvar raised his head, paying more careful attention. There was no threat to be found in the forest; birds and squirrels were active and loud in the trees all around them, signifying a lack of nearby predators or disturbances. Those, plus the sound of wind whispering among the leaves, were all he could hear. “What music?”

“Oh, sorry. Sometimes I forget my ears are so much better than yours,” she said with an impish smirk.

“I’m sure,” he replied dryly. “Perhaps I could hear better if there weren’t another source of music so much closer at hand?”

Aspen made a face at him and he ruffled her hair. In the momentary silence, though, he could barely make out the thin notes of a flute.

“Hm,” Ingvar murmured, turning to look in that direction. The forest was just the way he liked them: too thick to see that far. Very thick, in fact; to judge by the concentration of underbrush, these woods were overdue for a burning. “I wonder who would be out playing a flute in the middle of the woods in N’Jendo, and why?”

“Because it’s pretty,” she explained slowly, as if he were being obtuse. “What more reason does anybody need for making music?”

“You really have taken to some of these mortal art forms, haven’t you?”

“My upbringing kinda missed out on…all of them,” she agreed. “C’mon, let’s go visit whoever’s playing.”

“Perhaps they would rather be left alone,” he suggested, even as he followed her in the direction of the notes. “Many who venture this deep into the forests don’t seek company. We’re out here for exactly that reason, remember?”

“Well, if they don’t want company, we can always leave ’em alone,” she said reasonably. “But I bet they do! Anybody who fills the forest with pretty music has to be nice.”

It was amazing how naive she could be, for a creature who predated the Enchanter Wars and could pick up a grizzly bear with one hand. Ingvar offered no further argument; he found that Aspen learned about people more quickly when allowed to interact with them, and immediately grew bored when he tried to lecture her. By and large, it was a good enough way to proceed. Obviously they couldn’t enter any actual towns, save the elven groves and scattered Ranger enclaves where she was a celebrity rather than a feared monster. Encountering isolated individuals who would not be enthused to meet a dryad was probably good for her, overall.

Reddish light filtered through the trees from the west; the shadow of the Wyrnrange in the east had already gone fully dark. It was about time to be looking for a campsite anyway. Hopefully whoever was playing that flute would be willing to share. If not, they would have to keep looking and probably risk traveling after dark. On his own, Ingvar would have been more perturbed at the prospect, but these woods held nothing that would challenge a dryad. Actually, they were too far below the mountains for cougars, and the small local black bears probably wouldn’t get aggressive with a human anyway. Still, traveling with Aspen had started to spoil him a little.

They found a stream before they found the music, and in fact followed the path it cut through the ground uphill to a flat stretch of rock that jutted over the water, upon which no trees grew. It had been cleared of underbrush and a fire built near its center. Upon a fallen log next to the fire sat the music maker.

It was an elf. He had black hair. Ingvar narrowed his eyes, studying him.

“Oh, that’s a weird flute,” Aspen blurted out.

The elf was apparently unsurprised by their appearance—but then, he had doubtless heard them coming for the last half mile, even with his music. He lowered the little potato-shaped instrument from his lips to grin at the.

“It’s called an ocarina! Bit of a family tradition, you might say. Well, then!” He looked back and for between them a few times. “I’ve gotta say, you two aren’t what I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” Ingvar asked warily.

“It’s a funny thing, how you can have absolutely no idea what’s coming and still be surprised at the form it takes,” the elf said cheerfully. “Any shaman my age has to get used to the effect. The spirits told me that this is where I needed to come, that there was someone I needed to meet, and that I’d need to guide them to the next stage of their quest. But a dryad and a Huntsman of Shaath? That is a new one. Regardless, be welcome at my fire, daughter of Naiya, Brother of the Wolf. Consider the hospitality of my camp yours, as the hospitality of the forest is for all of us. My name is Rainwood.”

“Hey, thanks!” Aspen said brightly, trotting right up to him like a domestic horse and stretching out next to the flames with a pleased sigh.

Ingvar followed more judiciously, pausing to bow to the elf. “Our thanks, Rainwood.” It felt lacking; clearly the shaman’s welcome had been some manner of formal benediction, but it was one Ingvar had never heard. No great surprise, really. One could never tell how old an elf might be, and after their various visits with grove Elders he had grown almost accustomed to anachronistic etiquette. As long as the intent was clearly polite, he had found, showing courtesy in return never went amiss.

“So!” Rainwood tucked away his ocarina and tossed another piece of wood from the stack next to him on the fire. “I’m sure you two will have plenty of questions, and so do I. Let’s talk about quests, adventures, and the long road ahead of us.”


“Now that we stand upon the cusp of fruition,” Melaxyna intoned, “I feel I should state yet again, mistress, that this is surely one of the dumbest, most hare-brained—”

“Thank you, Mel, for sharing your opinion with me,” Natchua said flatly. “Double-check the spell circle.”

“Oh, come on, how many times—”

“Just do it!”

The succubus rolled her eyes, but obeyed, which was pretty much the pattern with her. Natchua had not found it necessary to impose discipline on her reluctant familiar, which she thought was for the best. Melaxyna already had a low opinion of every part of her plans, and adding tension to their relationship could only make it worse. So far, she followed orders without any funny business, and given the tendency of Vanislaad demons to creatively reinterpret instructions to their masters’ detriment, Natchua was quite content to endure backtalk if it meant Melaxyna actually did what she wanted her to do.

“It’s perfect,” the demon reported moments later, after pacing a full lap around the summoning circle, head bent to examine it closely. “And I’m sorry for jabbing at you about it.”

Natchua turned to her in surprise. “You’re sorry?”

“About that last bit,” the succubus clarified. “Precision and attention to detail are always vitally important in infernomancy, it’s a good idea to have me double-check your work, and I shouldn’t have downplayed that. I was not apologizing for my commentary on this dumb, pointless step in your hysterically asinine master plan.”

“Thanks, your approval means the world to me.”

“You know, kid, if you just wanted to fool around with that silver fox, I’m the last person in the world you need to justify it to with some grandiose plot.”

“I promise you, Mel, I will never justify anything I do for your benefit.”

“I kinda like that about you,” Melaxyna admitted.

Natchua turned back to the circle. “No more reason to wait then.” Raising both hands, she deftly channeled infernal power into the precise points on the circle, causing orange light to spread across the chalk lines on the floor and the five power crystals spaced around it to begin glowing. “You are summoned, HESTHRI!”

At the demon’s name, the infernal runes spelling it out in multiple places around the circle’s edge burst into flame.

“This whole thing has got to be the silliest use of infernal magic I have ever seen,” Melaxyna muttered. “And I once watched a guy burn down his house trying to curse rats out of the walls.” This time, Natchua ignored her.

A pillar of smoky light rose from the center of the floor, oscillating slowly. Within it, wisps of shadow coalesced into a humanoid figure, then solidified fully, and the light melted away. The circle itself continued to glow, though at a much dimmer intensity, with the only significant light sources being the power crystals and the still-flickering runes that spelled out Hesthri’s name.

Within, a hethelax demon spun rapidly about in confusion, spitting a few obscenities in demonic.

Natchua studied her with a more personal curiosity than she had expected to feel when this moment finally came. Yes…she could actually sort of see it. Hethelax demons were not generally held up as attractive specimens, not when there were the likes of Vanislaads and khelminash to which to compare them. The armor plating on their limbs made their elbows and knees permanently flexed, giving them a hunched posture like an ape’s. Additionally the scales and chitin protecting the forehead and cheekbones made a hethelax seem to be perpetually scowling. With this one, though, she could see how he had found her desirable. Her features were fine, if rather angular, and even her bent posture did not hide a quite fetching figure, which was well-displayed by a diaphonous garment in brown gauzy fabric not unlike a sundress in cut.

Hesthri’s eyes fixed on Natchua, and she switched smoothly to elvish in what was presumably the Scyllithene dialect.

“In a circle you can bend yourself and your own asshole chew upon until you can taste—”

“Tanglish,” Natchua interrupted in that language. “I understand your confusion, but no. You are in the Tiraan Empire, and won’t be meeting many drow apart from myself.”

At that, the hethelax hesitated, narrowing her golden eyes suspiciously. She answered in the same language, though. “Tiraas? Really?”

“The Empire,” Natchua repeated. “This is Mathenon, rather a long way from the capital.”

“Very well, then. Why in the Dark Lady’s name am I in Tiraas? You are overstepping your bounds, warlock. I am a servant of Princess Ixaavni, who does not take kindly to having her belongings tampered with. Send me back, or learn to fear her displeasure!”

“Well, this must be the one, all right,” Melaxyna drawled. “I never heard of a freshly-summoned demon being anything but delighted to be out of Hell.”

“Have you ever heard of this Ixaavni?” Natchua asked her.

The succubus shrugged. “Nope. That’s a khelminash name, though, and in the khelminash caste system hethelaxi are two steps above domestic livestock. Look, she’s got no tools, armor, or weapons, which means she’s not assigned any special use. I’d be amazed if this Princess gives half a shit about her going missing.”

“What about it, Hesthri?” Natchua inquired pleasantly. “Are you of any importance to your dear Princess?”

“She has no idea who I am and won’t miss me,” Hesthri replied immediately, and then scowled. “Oh, you conniving little twat. A truth compulsion ward built into a hethelax summons? Who does that?”

“My name is Natchua,” she said, folding her arms, “and I’ve called you here for a good and specific purpose.”

“I don’t care in the slightest, but I guess I’m not going anywhere until I hear you out, am I?”

“Very perceptive, Hesthri. I will explain in more detail in due time, but here’s the short version: I intend to punish Elilial herself for her overreaching, and toward that end I require the aid of trustworthy demons.”

Hesthri stared at her.

“No questions?” Natchua prompted lightly.

The hethelax turned to face Melaxyna and wordlessly pointed one finger at Natchua.

“I know,” the succubus said sympathetically. “Believe me, I know.”

“Okay, skipping the obvious,” Hesthri said with a heavy sigh. “If you want to kill yourself, fine, go nuts. But why me? If you think I am a trustworthy demon for this purpose, you’re even stupider than you already sound, and that’s really saying something. I am not going to join some demented crusade that’s only going to kill everyone involved. Even if I was, what good is one hethelax? You know we have no magic, right?”

“As I keep explaining to Melaxyna, here,” Natchua replied, “power is nothing. Trust is everything. You’re right, Elilial is far beyond me, and any force I could possibly conjure up. What matters is the situation. A great doom is coming, an important alignment at which the Dark Lady desperately needs everything to go her way. And yet, in the last handful of years, she has been handed a string of crushing defeats on the mortal plane. The Black Wreath has been viciously culled and is now on the run, and six of the seven of her own archdemons have been destroyed, right when she planned upon having their help. When the time comes, I will strike. It will be at a moment when all that is needed is one little thing to tip the balance. In that moment, it won’t matter what forces I have gathered, only that I can rely upon them to do what must be done, without being chivied, manipulated, or compelled by me.”

“Uh huh,” Hesthri said, manifestly unimpressed. “I still don’t care, though. I’m not your girl, warlock.”

“When you’ve been brought fully up to speed on the situation in the mortal world, you may feel differently,” Natchua said with a smile. “Of course, the important factor in this is your son.”

All expression immediately left Hesthri’s face. The demon stared at her, rigidly immobile and silent.

“That tense pause will be you struggling while under a truth compulsion to say you have no son, or some such,” Natchua stated, and couldn’t help but smirk at the twitch of Hesthri’s left eye in response. “Relax; I intend him no harm. Gabriel is…a friend of mine. Not a close one, but his well-being does matter to me. More important to you is the situation in which he finds himself. If you want to protect your son, you will help me bring down—”

She broke off, inwardly cursing herself. The sounds outside the basement door would have been inaudible to a human, but there was no such excuse for her elven senses. She had simply become wrapped up in the summoning and conversation, and missed the noise of feet on the stairs outside until too late.

“Melaxyna!” she barked, whirling. “The door!”

The succubus spun on command and got two steps toward it before the heavy door swung open and he stepped in, aiming a wand at them.

Everyone froze.

Jonathan Arquin’s eyes met Hesthri’s, then Natchua’s, and the blood drained from his face.

Hesthri emitted a little squeak totally unlike her previously defiant tone.

“Ooooh,” Melaxyna cooed, her tail beginning to wave behind her like a pleased cat’s. “Awk-warrrrrd.”

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Bonus #32: Deathspeaker, part 4

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“It really is the worst, isn’t it?” Arquin asked him in a low voice half an hour later.

Aresk turned to him, grunting with an upward inflection.

“Being useless,” the human said dryly, tilting his head at the two shaman at work. “There’s not a lot I hate more than standing around, watching people do the work. Not being able to contribute.”

“You keep blurting out things that make you sound almost like an orc,” Aresk grumbled. “It’s…disorienting. Anyway, this is a time for shaman magic, so…the shaman have to do it, and we have to watch. Shou ga nai.”

“C’est la vie,” Arquin replied lightly, and Aresk shot him an irritated look. He didn’t speak any Tanglish, and didn’t understand why the magic sword hadn’t translated that piece.

Raghann and Gairan were on their knees on the path to the shrine, facing it, with a cleared space around them laid out for their ritual purposes. Arquin had been intrigued that they had used chalk and dust to draw lines radiating from their position to various totems laid out around them, rather than defining a boundary circle. Talk of magic went over Aresk’s head, not to mention boring him, but fortunately and Raghann had peremptorily instructed Arquin to hush. At least the two of them were not alone in being excluded; the pair of robed death priests now lurked by the archway and the stairs, and the Battle Sisters had been called up to the shrine grounds to stand in a horseshoe formation around the ongoing magic.

Kyomi had her own respectful bubble of space off to the side, and simply stood in serene quiet. Aresk noted, now, that her black kimono and the katana she carried were both reminiscent of Battle Sister attire, though hers of course had no Avenic sigil. He wondered at the significance of that; it seemed impossible that there was none.

So they all stood, Aresk feeling chiefly conscious of his own impatience. Almost no one else present revealed any discomfort with being made to wait. The death priests were inscrutable as always, the Battle Sisters a very picture of discipline, and of course Kyomi was functionally older than time and without doubt could occupy herself with her own thoughts for far longer than this. That Arquin was the only person here with whom he felt any kinship was as amusing as it was annoying. Aresk hadn’t gotten over his antipathy toward the human, but he was beginning to appreciate the irony of it.

“Someone answers,” Raghann whispered suddenly, and there was a flicker of motion at the shrine.

Aresk snapped his attention to it, narrowing his eyes. Nothing was there, still, but for just a moment he thought he could see the outline of the doorway Kyomi had opened. By instinct, he lifted his hand ax from its loop at his belt. Foolish, of course; he was probably the least physically dangerous person here, even with the valkyries having been sent away at Raghann’s insistence. But still, if there was danger, an orc should have a weapon in hand.

A second flicker, a flat piece of space in front of the shrine rippling like a puddle touched by a leaf.

Then, without further warning, the thing burst out.

The creature was nothing created by nature; it was lopsided, one of its arms overly long and with fingers extending back upward like the bones of a bat’s wing. It supported itself on the knuckles of that hand and the mass of writhing tentacles it had instead of legs. The other arm was of more proportional length, but ended in a thick paw with seven fingers of mismatched size, each tipped by a disproportionately large, serrated claw. The top of its head was apparently missing, leaving only a flat surface above its slavering mouth—which had upthrust lower tusks, just like an orc.

Then the second mass of tentacles atop its stunted head rose up and shifted forward from having been flattened back against its skull, revealing that they were tipped in eyeballs.

Gairan made a little sound for which Aresk wouldn’t have condemned her even had he not been so fond of her. Arquin pulled a wand from the deep pocket of his coat.

“Brother!” Raghann declaimed, spreading her arms wide as though to embrace the monstrosity. “…or sister. This is a safe place. Be welcome here.”

The creature surged forward a few feet, and Aresk instinctively did likewise. It moved with a strange gait, tugging itself along on that one overlong arm while its mess of tendrils supported it, but even so it moved fast for such an ungainly creature.

All around them came the avid hiss of steel as the Battle Sisters unsheathed their swords in unison.

The monster stopped, however, its eyeballs pivoting to take them all in, its head pointing at Raghann. It opened its jaws to extend a wide, flat tongue, with which it appeared to taste the air.

“We feel your pain,” Raghann said, gazing up at the beast without fear. “We feel your anger. We offer you respite, and the hope of healing. Let go of—”

It screamed at her—or roared, it was hard to tell as it had three distinct voices making different noises simultaneously. Then it charged. Not at Raghann, this time, but to her left, at Gairan.

Aresk crossed the ground in three rapid strides, planting himself between the shaman and the monster, and roared a wordless challenge back at it.

Rather to his surprise, the thing stopped its advance, close enough it could have reached out to grab him with its longer arm. It flexed its jaws, screaming right back at him. He braced his feet and lifted his axe, leaning toward it and baring all his teeth in a bellow of pure fury.

The monster stopped, tilting its head inquisitively. Aresk couldn’t guess which eyeball to look at, so he stared at a point right above its mouth.

“Boy, get out of the way,” Raghann ordered from behind him.

Aresk ignored her apparently suicidal demand, not taking his attention off the monster. It swayed slowly from side to side, and he tracked it with his eyes. The beast bared fangs, growling at him, and he did the same right back.

Then it actually settled backward slightly, seeming to consider him in earnest.

“Move!” Raghann snapped, prodding him from behind with her staff.

“Mother Raghann,” Gairan began, “maybe he—”

“Trust your elders, both of you,” she said curtly. “I know what I’m doing.”

Aresk didn’t see how she could possibly know what she was doing, since what they were all doing had no precedent in the history of the world. Still, rather than try to fight on two fronts, he began easing to the side. Keeping his pace carefully slow but his steps firm, not showing weakness by signaling a retreat, but deliberately not making aggressive moves. He had done this dance many a time with other orcs; it was all part of getting to know a stranger in any circumstance when it was not certain who was dominant. This was how matters were first settled whenever he encountered orcs from other clans while away from Camp Khashrek on a hunt.

The monster mirrored his movements in its weird shuffling gait, circling around slowly in the other direction. He might have suspected it was going around him to get at the shaman, but it kept its focus firmly on him, right where he wanted it. The movements were all so bizarrely familiar.

“Lost one,” Raghann said earnestly once she had a clear line of sight to the creature, “we implore you to be at peace.”

Aresk didn’t risk taking his eyes off the beast, but narrowed them in disapproval. Something in this twisted abomination still thought like an orc, that much he could tell from the way it acted. Orcs did not implore each other. She was treating it like one of the human spirits or yokai that sometimes went wandering on Tsurikura and had to be coaxed back to rest. That was a big part of a shaman’s role in their society, now. But here…

“This is a place of safety,” Raghann continued in a soothing voice. “A place of rest. We are your kin, long lost but not forgotten. Please find—”

The monster abruptly rounded on her with a truly horrific scream, raising its many-clawed hand to strike the old shaman. Aresk lunged at it, drawing back his own axe to attack.

Arquin was faster and, having circled around the shaman during the confrontation, closer. He was also no longer holding a wand, somehow, but a scythe of gnarled, blackened wood, whose gleaming blade he planted right in the center of the monstrosity’s chest.

It collapsed in on itself like a rotting mushroom, its bulk crumpling, disintegrating into dust, and emitting a cloud of mist which seemed made more of light than particulate matter. It swirled away back toward the portal, though some seemed to be sucked in by the scythe.

Aresk stared fixedly until the last of it had vanished. It was for the most fleeting moment, so briefly he was half-convinced he had imagined it, but for just that instant he had been certain he’d seen the shape of an orc in the swirling vapor. Nodding to him, one hunter acknowledging another.

“What have you done?” Raghann demanded furiously, rising to her feet.

“He saved our lives, that’s what,” Gairan snapped. “That thing was not going to listen to you, elder.”

“That thing was one of our people!”

“And now they’re at peace,” Arquin said calmly, planting the butt of his scythe on the ground, “for the first time in a century. But that still wasn’t the outcome we’re looking for, here. What went wrong?”

The old shaman drew in a deep breath, then let it out slowly, mastering her anger. “It was the first try. We cannot expect everything to go our way all at once, not with something like this. Well. Now we know we can reach them across the gateway. We must figure out how to calm them enough that they will listen. That lost spirit was utterly maddened with rage and grief, trapped in a twisted form it hated. It had forgotten how to be an orc.”

“Then how do we remind them?” Gairan asked.

“That is what we must figure out, isn’t it?” Raghann replied. “When in doubt, a shaman always has ways of seeking answers. We must consult the spirits for advice. Familiar spirits, known to us already. They do not often provide answers outright, but they will point us in the right direction to begin asking.” While Gairan nodded agreement, the older shaman turned a baleful look on Aresk, followed by a pointing finger. “And you will refrain from interfering next time, young man.”

“The creature you summoned was going to kill you, Mother Raghann,” he retorted. “I stopped it. You’re welcome. Listen, the way you were going about trying to calm it—”

“Ahp!” She held up a hand, turning her face away from him in one of those exceedingly rude gestures for which she was known that would get anyone but the eldest of his clan summarily punched in the eye. “I do you the courtesy of not telling you how to trap and skin beasts. The difference between us is that I know my limitations and respect them, boy. Don’t lecture me about calming agitated spirits!”

“That thing was well beyond agitated,” he insisted, “and calming it was exactly the wrong thing to do!”

“Now, you listen to me,” Raghann began in a dangerous tone.

“Excuse me?” Arquin interrupted, frowning. “I don’t know that I agree with Aresk, either, but Kyomi-sama herself chose him for this task. I’m pretty sure that summarily brushing him off is not called for.”

“That’s right,” Gairan agreed, nodding in approval at Aresk.

Once again, Raghann’s shoulders lifted with a slow inhalation, and once again she repressed whatever she’d been about to erupt with. The contrast between her and Arkhosh had never been more striking, even with one of them miles away.

“First, we seek wisdom,” she grunted at last, turning her back on Aresk and kneeling again in her ritual diagram. “Perhaps the spirits’ advice will shed some light on the young hunter’s. Come, Gairan, I will need your focus.”

Aresk snorted, but quietly, and fortunately neither shaman reacted to him. He retreated a few steps to the edge of the nearest row of graves, turning a thoughtful stare upon the inconspicuous spot where that terrible gate lay invisible.

Arquin circled around the shaman back the other way, approaching him. At some point while Aresk’s eyes were off him he’d made that scythe disappear. All this magic was enough to give a man a headache…

“What do you think?” the human asked very quietly, coming to stand next to Aresk.

He hesitated before answering, gathering his thoughts and turning a pensive stare on Gairan and Raghann.

“I don’t blindly do whatever my father says, you know.” he murmured at last. “It’s not just love that makes me favor him and his views over Mother Raghann’s. I remember growing up in a clan where they were both authority figures. I remember her always trying to…calm me down. Lecturing about the hot blood of youth, telling me to take long walks or forcing me into lessons on meditating, of all the boring claptrap.”

“Mm,” Arquin grunted. “The condescension of smart old people is universal across cultures, I guess.”

Aresk nodded. “My father taught me how to cope like an orc. He gave me work to do, to tire me out. Or deliberately set me up to brawl with other young people till we worked it out of our systems. He’d even fight me himself when he found it necessary.”

Arquin was giving him a strange look, as if to say that clearly not everything was universal across cultures. Aresk was familiar enough with the Sifanese not to need that explained.

“Raghann is right about one thing,” he said softly. “If that monster is what’s left in Athan’Khar now, they have forgotten how to be orcs. She was wrong about what to do, though. You don’t calm that kind of anger. Especially not when it’s justified. That just makes it worse.”

“I’m pretty sure you don’t get in punching matches with it, either,” Arquin said.

“Only the young among us fight over every little thing,” Aresk mused, his eyes distant. “We’re not savages, Arquin, nor are we monsters. We feel and express things more acutely than your kind, but we do have a society, which wouldn’t function if everyone was always lashing out. We have our ways. Ways to express, to cope, to get along. Ways that are not what she was trying to do with that beast. Raghann has the same problem. She’s forgotten how to be an orc. She’s the heir of a hundred years of Sifanese influence. The spirits of Athan’Khar are the remains of a hundred years of rage. Her ways will never make them listen.”

Arquin turned a speculative look on Raghann. Both shaman had their backs to them and were chanting over a burning pile of something that smelled acridly herbal.

“There is absolutely no way,” the human said thoughtfully, “anything useful would result from trying to explain that to her.”

“The condescension of smart old people,” Aresk agreed, then took a deep breath. “Arquin. Man to man, if I was to do something that seemed crazy, maybe even suicidal, could I count on you not to interfere?”

The human gave him a sidelong look, his expression unreadable. “That depends on what crazy thing we’re talking about, and more importantly, why you’re doing it.”

Aresk chanced a glance at Kyomi, and found her watching him with a faint little smile. Catching his eye, she winked.

“I feel I know what to do,” he said softly. “And nobody’s going to like it. Especially not me.”

“That’s it? You feel?”

“This is about feelings. Every part of it. It’s about anger, and hate, and grief, and hope. How to deal with them. Raghann can’t do it.”

“But you can.” Aresk couldn’t fault him for the skepticism in his voice.

“I don’t know, Arquin. But I know what to try.”

He sighed. “Gairan’s going to kick my ass if you get yourself killed.”

“Yes, she will,” Aresk said, grinning a grin that was at least as much repressed terror as amusement. He had to deny the fear welling up or it would paralyze him. “Listen, it’s like you showed me last night. Sometimes you can’t fight head on. But you have to be willing to stand and let your enemy come to grips before you can…push them aside.”

“I’m gonna regret this, I know it,” Arquin muttered. “Look, whatever madness you’re thinking of, do it as carefully as you can. Take it slow and think it over.”

Aresk clapped him on the shoulder, almost hard enough to knock him over. “Not a chance.”

Then he burst into a sprint, even though it was sure to draw the attention of the shaman and risk them stopping him somehow. There was no way around it; if he tried to approach this slowly, he would never be able to see it through.

Sure enough, they noticed.

“Aresk!” Gairan shouted in horror, and then he plunged through the gate.


Suddenly it was dark, and it took Aresk an embarrassing few moments to realize that that was because he’d just traveled a significant distance around the planet, and not due to any magic. It was a forgivable mistake, though, as everything else within his view bore the taint of magic in the worst possible way.

The darkness was not absolute; that might have been preferable. Athan’Khar’s very atmosphere seemed to have a sulfurous glow, hanging over the horizon and casting shifting patterns of inexplicable shadow all around. Aresk’s immediate environment was clearly a shrine—an orcish shrine, not the Sifanese Vidian holy ground he’d just left. Behind him stood a gateway, a physical one in which Kyomi had clearly positioned her magic portal. Massive stone pillars towered over twenty feet, with another laid atop them, all square-carved and deeply engraved with intricate knotwork. In fact, when he looked closer, the lines seemed to be filled with a dark glassy material like obsidian.

Boundaries and gateways were important in the Kharsa people’s traditional shamanism, setting aside areas like the ceremonial grounds back in Camp Khashrek where specific codes of behavior applied. A free-standing ceremonial gate not part of a boundary was used for rituals of transition—namings, rites of adulthood, marriages, funerals, the elevation of shaman, and so on. This one had clearly served a sizable community, to judge by the baskets of offerings laid around its base. After a hundred years they were all rotted to barely-identifiable scraps. It was unsettling that the ancient grains, hides, trinkets and weapons had all rotted and dried up to virtually residue, but nothing had been tampered with by scavengers. All of it lay shriveled up exactly where it had been placed.

At least the gate and its grounds were clear. It was positioned in a hollow surrounded by forested hills, with a road leading out of the space between two hills just in front of him. The trees, though… They were twisted. Their shapes rose up from the ground like grasping fingers, coiled around themselves with leafless branches clutching at each other, or reaching skyward. In fact, he realized with horror as his eyed adjusted to the low light, it wasn’t his mind playing tricks: those branches ended in the actual shapes of hands. Long and skeletal, but unmistakable.

There was a patch of nearly-dead yellowish grass around the ancient gateway, but beyond that, the ground cover looked more like patches of mold whose color he couldn’t make out in the dimness, interspersed with spiky little bushes that bristled with thorns, and stands of mushrooms taller than his waist, with fat round caps too big for their scrawny stalks, causing them to list drunkenly in all directions.

Aresk had the grace of just a few moments to slowly turn around, getting his bearings and taking in the sights, such as they were. Then it started.

At first he thought it was the wind, but the sound kept rising, and became impossible to misinterpret: it was moaning. It came from the woods all around, undulating gently and shifting this way and that. No sooner had he begun to make sense of the noise than a glow followed it, an eerie pale illumination which seemed out of the trees at irregular intervals, casting a foggy light across the clearing.

And, incidentally, revealing that the spiky bushes were covered with tiny skulls. Aresk couldn’t tell if they grew that way or were impaled on the spines.

The gate was right there, behind him. He could step back through. Gairan and Raghann would berate him to no end for his stupidity, and worse, he would look like a coward… But he would be alive and not turned into another undead horror.

No.

Aresk, son of Arkhosh of the High Wind clan, was an orc. He would retreat when it was wise, but not when pushed by fear. Not without at least trying what he had come here to do.

He raised his ax high, threw back his head, and roared a long, ululating challenge at the nightmares all around him.

Screams, howls, and unearthly cacophony of all sorts immediately answered him, accompanied by movement among the lights in the trees. And then they came forth.

After the first glance he stopped trying to make sense of the misshapen limbs, tentacles, impossible claws and hideously warped biology of the beasts that emerged from the forest. None of them belonged in this world, that much was plain. By and large they were pale like cave salamanders, as if even the sun did not bother to touch Athan’Khar anymore.

At least they didn’t keep him waiting.

The shapes approached in no hurry, shuffling and loping with a variety of lopsided gaits, closing in from all sides on the patch of clear space around the gateway.

Aresk brandished his ax and bellowed a challenge at them.

From every direction, howling answered him. He was surrounded utterly by death and its uglier cousins, fixed on adding him to their ranks. The terror of it alone was enough to crush the spirit.

He pushed aside terror, embracing rage.

And then the whispers began.

They were beyond the edge of hearing, not intelligible, but more the sense of voices in his ears. Even without discerning words, he felt the message. Senseless fury, unrelenting agony, grief and hatred. Entreaties—demands—that he join them. Intentions to make him do so. The monsters came, one step and slither and stumble at a time, their voices worming deep into his mind, voices of their twisted spirits rather than their twisted bodies.

In those voices, he found what he needed. Shaman had come here and been swept up by these abominations, and though Aresk did not know exactly what they had tried, he suspected the shape of it from having watched Raghann. That would never work. This rage could not be calmed. It could not be resisted.

So, instead of resisting, he opened himself to it. Aresk drank in their pain and fury, feeling the stab of its agony in his own heart. Then, he added to it, calling up every memory of his father’s speeches about their people’s lost past, about the importance of the old ways. About their eternal hatred of the Tiraan.

The howling and snarling rose, all around and within him. Aresk did not deny them their rage; he joined them in it.

Raising his face to the yellowish sky, he roared again, a long and wild exhalation of pure ferocity. The fury pounding in him was more than his mere body could expel, but he tried anyway. He wrapped the bottomless well of rage around himself like a river in which he swam, drew it through his own spirit, and poured it out with his voice, howling and roaring until his throat ached.

And they joined him in turn. The creatures stopped advancing, halting where they were, and raised their voices higher.

Aresk was no longer afraid of them. He was one with them. A living part of the anguish and anger that animated this land and its denizens.

They screamed at the sky, pouring forth their fury at what they had lost. At the pain that wracked them still. Their helplessness, their betrayal.

Then he took it a step further, adding the anger and humiliation of their living cousins in Sifan. Every memory he could conjure—not the recollections of events, but the emotions of it. The reality of living at the indulgence of a greater nation, in the shadow of their own destruction. The helpless humiliation that was the existence of the last of the Kharsa.

The roaring around him rose further. It spread outward, now. The noise was already more than his mere ears could make sense of, but Aresk was linked now to this land and these voices in a way he didn’t quite understand, and he could feel them rippling across all of Athan’Khar, a million broken horrors screaming in unison. They would hear this in Viridill and N’Jendo.

He had dropped his ax, raising his arms to the heavens and howling at them. And as Aresk taught these lost ancestors the feelings of their people now, the temper of their screaming changed. Pain rose up through the anger, grief and loss, until it fully covered their fury.

They screamed at the night. Sobbed and wailed, expelling the agony of history’s greatest atrocity, and the century of pain which had followed. It poured out without cease, an entire shattered nation crying as one voice.

He couldn’t have said how long it went on. At one point, he fell to his knees. At another, he became conscious of tears gushing down his face. Aresk topped forward, clawing at the earth of Athan’Khar, pounding his fists against it in helplessness.

And slowly, eventually, it came to a stop. First with him, as his voice eventually gave out from sheer physical strain. And then, spreading outward, quiet rippled from that one forgotten gateway shrine to the farthest reaches of the lost country.

The pain was not gone. That pain would never be gone. That anger could not be washed away. It was there…but it had been given the chance to express itself, and somehow, Aresk and his undead nation had exhausted themselves until they couldn’t scream any more, not even within.

There was quiet. All the agony and fury lay there, not lost, but dormant for the moment. For a while, he and they simply…were. Together.

And Aresk found other memories.

The stories told of Athan’Khar, of its great heroes and wild rituals. Of the land—a good, rich land, rugged and dangerous but vibrantly alive. Its ridges and hills carpeted with pines, brushed by cold winds and harsh winters. The elk and goats and wolves and beavers and cougars and all the living things among whom the Kharsa lived, taking what they needed with appreciation and respect, accepting it with honor when nature took from them in turn.

Towering, craggy mountains, the southernmost arm of the Wyrnrange extending down from the human lands almost to the tundra in the deep south. Glaciers tracking their infinitesimal progress across the southern reaches. Mighty waterfalls and gushing rivers, fed by countless living streams. The rocky cliffs of the western coast and the smoother shores of the east, where the Cold Spray clan had fished and traded with visitors from the world over.

The auroras dancing in the night sky, a sight Aresk had never seen and could scarcely imagine. Stories of the lights last glimpsed generations ago could not possibly capture their wonder or beauty. But at the thought of them, he was shown. All around him were spirits who had seen those lights, and their clarity exploded into his mind, memories adding to his own. They were more glorious than he could have imagined.

He wept anew for the lost beauty of his land, kneeling and pressing his forehead into the dirt. Soft keening rose around him, but it was only from a few points, now, and far gentler in tone.

Athan’Khar, their beautiful country. It was not forgotten.

Aresk had the strangest sensation for just a moment, as if the world moved under him. As though he stood not upon solid ground, but on the back of some great turtle which had just taken a ponderous step.

And before he could process that, another memory came to him. A memory of humans.

He saw women of every color in which they came, dark Westerners, pale Stalweiss, tawny Tiraan, many others, the Sisters of Viridill. And in those memories of the horror that came with the Enchanter’s Bane, they were joined.

He heard cries of shock and grief in thin human voices, dainty little faces with expressions twisted with rage. Hands extended with compassion.

Hands taking up weapons.

The Sisterhood turning around in the middle of war, closing ranks with their enemies and turning the force of their fury upon the Imperial Army. The broken Kharsa armies and Silver Legionnaires slamming into the Tiraan and sweeping them aside, till not a one darkened Viridill’s borders.

Aresk understood, and reciprocated.

He called up images of the Sifanese, the polite and distant people so different from the rough and vibrant orcs. The boisterous and cheerful Punaji who came to trade with them, both goods and stories, and who never looked down on orcs, or even askance at them. The creepy Vidian priests and serene Battle Sisters who joined them from time to time on Tsurikura. The various Sifanese outcasts who came to spend time among the Kharsa, learning their ways and teaching them what they knew in turn.

Gabriel Arquin, the strangely orc-like young man, with his valkyries and his dark two-faced god, determined not to leave the crimes of the past where they lay.

Humanity in all its complexity, and the truth that there were friends out there in the world. Souls who would stand shoulder to shoulder with the orcs against true evil. Who did not judge or reject, even when the great powers among them demanded that they should.

Not to try to calm away the rage like Raghann wanted, but to fight together.

Slowly, they slunk away. The hivemind of broken spirits was not a thing which could make decisions, and certainly not change its ways; Aresk had not healed anything. But he had added to it. There was something new coursing through the veins of Athan’Khar’s warped collective psyche now: hope.

Monsters retreated back through the trees, leaving him untouched upon the ground before the shrine. Gradually, the awareness of their thought, their inner voices, ebbed away as well.

Behind them they left exhaustion like nothing Aresk had ever felt. He slumped over onto his side, lacking even the energy to support himself.

And there, lying stretched out upon the ground as if to embrace it, he felt it again. That great, subtle shifting. Something colossal beneath the tortured spirit of the land which began to stir at his touch.

You understand.

The words were Kharsa, whispering through his mind like the voices of the damned, but much clearer. The intelligence behind them strained and wounded, but not so badly distorted.

You are an orc. You know how we must heal. Not through rest, but through battle.

Aresk drew in a breath, rasping around his painfully strained vocal cords. “Who are you?”

Anything that lives may die, son of the Kharsa. But for gods, even death is a different thing.

“Khar,” he whispered into the very dirt, too wrung out even to feel as awed as this situation called for.

Light rose around him—warm and gentle light. Aresk found the energy to push himself up to his hands and knees, weakly raising his head to behold the gate.

The lines of Kharsa knotwork inscribed on the shrine were no longer dormant black glass, but glowing softly with pale golden light. The touch of divine magic, no longer tainted by the Enchanter’s Bane, had returned to Athan’Khar. At least to this one tiny spot.

And where it could touch once, it could spread.

Our people have remembered their ways as best they can, I see it in your mind. We have still our shaman. But there have been no priests of Khar. There can be no priests of a dead god.

Unless the god of death extends a hand to help.

“What must I do?” he asked hoarsely.

The ways which have been lost must be found again. New ways must be walked in a new world. It begins with you: the first to understand how the lost souls of the Kharsa can be spoken with. Teach others. Continue to meet with them. Take from them the pain they offer. Give to them the healing you must gather into yourself. Be one with them—as orcs. Let them remember who they are, Deathspeaker.

You must find peace, in order to give peace.

We must have peace, in order to fight the battles that will come.

Aresk gathered his strength, rising unsteadily to his feet. Around him, bathed in the divine glow of the shrine, the green grass had rejuvenated itself in just minutes, forming a lush carpet of life. At the very edges of the glow, spikes and skulls began to melt from a few bushes like frost under the sun. Giant mushrooms were slowly shrinking, revealing hints of the mundane toadstools nature had meant for them to be.

“I will,” he vowed, pounding a fist into his heart. “I…do not know the way. But I will find it. We will find it.”

Above him, the moon broke through the haze, and the yellowish cast of the light gently faded. In that one place, there was the first touch of healing.


Gairan hugged him first. Then she punched him. Aresk let her do it three times before catching her fist.

“I truly did not think we would ever see you again, boy,” Raghann said unsteadily, approaching. He was surprised to see her face hollowed and tear-streaked; it was a reminder that for all his points of disagreement with the old shaman, she cared for him as she did for any of their clan.

“God damn I’m glad you’re back,” Arquin added fervently. “And…what’s all this, then?”

He gestured, and Aresk straightened his back, burying self-consciousness beneath pride, as was the way of the Kharsa. He couldn’t quite explain the origin of his clothes; he’d just been wearing them when he turned to step back through the gate. Instead of his simple hunter’s garb, he was dressed in a coarse robe draped with a mantle of raven feathers, a crown of horns and antlers lying atop his head. Regalia of a kind the orcs had not seen in a century: that of their long-broken priesthood.

Wrapping an arm around Gairan’s shoulders as she pressed herself into his side, Aresk closed his eyes, concentrating. He found it within, the soft glow accompanied by the sluggish, almost-lost sense of a dead god just beginning to remember life. And the sharp pain of the countless shattered spirits of their homeland, inextricably bound with the power.

But it came, nonetheless, and a glow rose around him, the pale golden-white aura of divine magic.

Raghann’s gasp of shock was deeply gratifying. Kyomi’s knowing chuckle less so, but he knew better than to give the kitsune a reaction.

“Well, blow me down,” Arquin breathed. “You found a way.”

“Not yet.” Aresk shook his head, and then smiled. “But we’ve found a way to begin.”

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